Chapter 77

There wasn’t any time to come up with a plan of attack. There wasn’t even enough time to begin thinking about a plan. The amateur painter was walking in our direction, long legs eating up the distance at an alarming rate. He’d be close enough to see us in less than a minute. Whatever we were going to do, we’d have to do it before then.

Devlin was still talking to Mila. “No, I don’t think they’ll attack us until we hit them first.”

Silence, while she voiced her opinion. I should have brought our remaining earbuds. At the earliest opportunity, I was going to have to get my hands on another set for the entire team.

Not an option,” Devlin said. “Someone’s trying to kill him, Mila; even if we don’t need him ourselves, that still implies he knows something worth hiring assassins for.”

More silence. The amateur painter drew closer to the two of us. Devlin tugged on my arm, so that we stood slightly off of the path. We were still perfectly visible, but at least we weren’t so obviously watching the proceedings anymore. I figured that might buy us a moment or two to coordinate.

I’m not thrilled about it either,” Devlin said into the phone. “But it is what it is. We’re at the center of the park; how long do you think it’ll take you to get here? Without alerting any other potential spotters that you’re here?”

Whatever answer she gave him wasn’t satisfactory. He frowned and shook his head.

It’ll have to do. Make it happen. Tell Michel to keep the car on. I’m not willing to assume these are the only hired guns in the area.”

I waited until Devlin returned the phone to his pocket before I spoke. “What does she think?”

Exactly what you’d expect,” Devlin said. “She thinks we should stay out of whatever this is, for the moment. Maybe follow the assassins back to wherever they came from, on the off-chance that we could figure something out based on their point of origin.”

If we waited, the woman with the stroller would kill Barrett. She might already have completed that grisly task.

Mila was simply being practical, which was her job. Barrett wasn’t a part of our team, nor was he was an old friend like Alex and his daughter. People in our line of work met unfortunate ends all of the time. It was just an asset of the business that one had to accept. Exposing us to greater risk would be foolish, especially since we knew nothing about Barrett’s true motivations. The smart move was to watch, to wait until we knew more.

Did that go against Mila’s stated advice? Wasn’t it better to act, than to wait?

This was a different scenario than any she’d intended, probably. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we should help Barrett, wisdom and circumspection be damned.

Devlin hadn’t received Mila’s lecture, so I knew that her words weren’t affecting his thoughts like they were mine. Still, I knew him well enough to anticipate his answer before he even pursed his lips to speak it out loud.

We’re saving him, though,” he said. “Whoever is trying to kill him has to be doing so for a reason. If we assume that there aren’t any coincidences, maybe he knows some useful information.”

And,” I added, “it wouldn’t hurt to have a cat burglar owing us a favor.”

Devlin made an noncommittal noise in his throat, but neither agreed or disagreed with me using words. “Mila’s on her way, but she’ll be too late to help.”

Where does that leave us?”

The amateur painter reached the apex of the path. He expertly flipped the not-paintbrush in a manner that concealed its metallic tip against his forearm, waved at us with his other hand, and set up his easel again. He was sitting at an angle that kept any passers-by from looking at his work, but that still afforded him a wide field of vision. He’d be able to see anyone approaching from either direction on the path. Coupled with the joggers taking up position at the far end of the path, practically on the opposite side of the enclosure Barrett had slipped into, it would be very difficult to sneak up on any of them.

Three spotters,” Devlin said under his breath, without moving his lips. “At least, three that we know about. One in there with him. We’ll have to neutralize the spotters or run the risk of them calling for reinforcements.”

Reinforcements?” The question came out a little louder than I’d intended it to. I turned my back to him, so that he couldn’t read my lips. “Why would there be reinforcements?”

Can’t assume anything right now,” Devlin said. His voice was growing colder, more distant. It wasn’t a full transformation into the arctic, dispassionate version that appeared on difficult jobs; this seemed more like a cousin or a relative to that individual. Someone capable of making hard choices, but who still remained aware of why those choices were difficult to begin with.

What are you thinking?”

He didn’t answer immediately. Devlin swept his eyes over our surroundings, taking in the details that he hadn’t cared about at first. I could practically hear the gears spinning to full power in his head, as he went through a dozen different options in an instant.

A distraction,” he said finally. He focused his eyes on me. “I need you to give me a distraction.”

I opened my mouth to protest – how was I supposed to safely distract a member of a hit squad? – but that protest died on my lips when I glimpsed the determination in Devlin’s bearing. He’d analyzed the situation in a heartbeat and, using those same skills I complained about and lauded in equal measure, made a decision. For better or worse, he’d decided. I could either stall or I could trust in his intuition.

Put that way, it wasn’t a difficult choice to make.

For how long?” I asked.

He shrugged and fished around in his pocket for something. “You’ll know. Trust me.”

Devlin watched the amateur painter intensely for a few moments. When the painter’s attention shifted elsewhere, Devlin slipped away, off of the path and into the bushes.

I stood there, dumbly, for a handful of seconds that seemed like minutes. Devlin hadn’t bothered to explain what he’d be doing while I distracted the amateur painter. Likely, he didn’t even know yet. That would be just like him.

Gathering my willpower and courage took just long enough for me to start feeling the now-familiar mixture of adrenaline and anxiety trickling into my veins. I stepped down on the anxiety, but allowed the heady, intoxicating rush of adrenaline to fill me with energy. Action. I had to commit to action.

I walked up the amateur painter, plastering a fake smile on my face as I approached. When I was only a few steps away, the man’s head snapped around and fixated on me.

What’re you working on?” I asked cheerfully. I could only hope that the nervous tremor in my voice wasn’t as noticeable to him as it was to my own ears.

The amateur painter paused, seemingly considering what the best response might be. “A landscape,” he said finally. I didn’t have Devlin’s ear for accents, but even I recognized a European accent when I heard one. The specific country eluded me, though.

I used to do a little landscape painting myself,” I said, speaking as quickly as the lies came to me. “The parks were a lot more urban where I’m from, though.”

The amateur painter gave me a weak smile and nodded. If he’d been a regular person, I would have taken those gestures as universal signs of forced politeness. But I’d seen with my own eyes that what he held against the canvas wasn’t a paintbrush. And I’d told Devlin that I would give him a distraction.

You don’t mind if I take a look at what you’ve got, do you?” I asked. I took a half step forward, hesitant to get even closer to the amateur painter and his weapon, but unable to figure out any other way to force him to pay attention to me. “Might be able to give you a little advice, if you’re willing to listen.”

Immediately, he pivoted so that the easel and canvas were between the two of us. “No! I mean…no, please. I am very shy.”

No reason to be shy,” I said, forcing myself to take another step forward. Now, I was certain that he’d be able to hear the tremor in my voice. “We’re both artists. I’m just curious, is all.”

No, no. I would be too embarrassed to -”

I was close enough to the amateur painter to reach out and touch him. Instead of extending a hand to him, however, I touched the painting itself. My fingers had barely touched the canvas when the amateur painter pushed the entire easel in my direction. Canvas and wooden tripod alike caught me by surprise and I stumbled backwards a few feet before falling on my butt.

I saw two things. First, the discarded canvas was mostly empty white space, except for a pinned photograph in the center. Barrett’s photograph, along with writing in a language I didn’t speak, was prominently displayed there. I took that as confirmation that, whoever these people were, someone had sent them after the cat burglar specifically.

Second, I finally got a clean look at the amateur’s “paintbrush:” an eight inch long stiletto, sharpened and honed to a vanishingly small point. The amateur wrapped his fist around the handle, gripping it like a blackjack more than a knife.

I am sorry,” he said to me. “But you have seen too much now.”

He couldn’t see what I could, though. On my back, staring up at him as he approached with weapon in hand, I was in a unique position to spot a third thing.

Using my distraction, Devlin had sneaked through the bushes like a shadow, completely silent and unseen.  When the painter stepped toward me, stiletto raised over his head for a strike that would end my life, Devlin stepped out of concealment.  His arm snaked around the painter’s throat, forearm pressed tightly against the man’s neck, and pulled back.  Caught off guard and off balance, the painter panicked for just a moment…and a moment was all Devlin needed. 

Devlin leaned backwards, using his weight and leverage to haul the painter off of his feet.  His forearm pressed deeper into the painter’s throat and windpipe, cutting off any cry of alarm the man may have issued.  The two struggled with each other but Devlin had positioned himself perfectly.  The painter couldn’t use his stiletto against a target he couldn’t see and, with his feet off of the ground, he couldn’t manage to raise a sufficient defense.  Devlin applied more pressure, straining with the effort.  After a few moments of silent conflict, the painter slumped into unconsciousness.

Devlin didn’t release his hold.  He dragged the painter’s limp body off of the path, then quickly fiddled with something I couldn’t quite make out.  When he finished, he stepped out of the grass and bushes, breathing heavily

What are we going to do when he wakes up?” I asked.

I used my belt to tie his hands,” Devlin said, “and gagged him with some fabric.  That won’t keep him out of commission for long, but at least it gives us a little bit of a window.”

I hadn’t noticed the frayed edges of Devlin’s shirt before, but I could see now that he’d ripped off one sleeve at the elbow.  I’d only given him a few seconds’ worth of distraction and he’d come up with that idea to incapacitate one of the spotters?  Nonlethally, no less?

Good thinking,” I said.

He flashed a tight, tense smile at me.  “I do what I can.  Come on, we’re on the clock.”

Devlin took point and I was happy to let him do it.  With one of the three spotters out of commission, an opening presented itself.  We made our way closer to where Barrett and the woman with the stroller were.  Miraculously, neither of the two joggers noticed us.  They were obviously depending on their cohort to warn them of any trouble approaching from our direction.  Devlin angled us so that we’d eventually have the entire enclosure between us and the joggers, just to be safe.

When we reached the concealing wall of hedges, Devlin gestured for me to come closer.  “Something’s not right,” he said.

You think?” I whispered back.

He gave me a significant look, but didn’t comment on my sarcasm.  “Why the knives?”

What are you talking about?”

There are four of them,” Devlin said, “and only one of him.  They have the drop on him and we’re nowhere near anybody else who isn’t specifically looking for this place.  So, why the knives?”

I’m not understanding your point, Dev,” I said.

They could easily just kill him, if that’s what they wanted,” Devlin said.  “Ambush him as soon as he lets his guard drop, shoot him in the head, and just walk away without raising the alarm.  It wouldn’t be difficult.”

As bothered as I was by Devlin’s casual discussion of the best way to kill someone, I wasn’t overly surprised that his thoughts had tuned themselves in that direction.  Assassins, hitmen, and the roughest sorts of underworld denizens were becoming increasingly commonplace in our day-to-day lives.  Mila couldn’t be the only one of us to take those threats seriously.

Devlin shook his head, visibly dismissing his ponderings, and refocused his attention on the hedges in front of us.  With excruciating caution, he parted some of the foliage so that he could peek into the enclosure.  I looked over his shoulder, squinting through the leaves and branches to see what I could, as well.

Inside, Barrett and the woman in the stroller were having a conversation.  Neither seemed particularly uneasy, although I did notice that the woman was no longer holding her silenced handgun.  They weren’t whispering, probably due to an assumption of privacy, and that allowed me to strain my ears and catch what they were saying.

That wasn’t the deal,” Barrett said to the woman.  “I acquire your boss’ trinket; in exchange, he points in the direction of the people I’m looking for.”

Deals change,” the woman said.  She had the same accent as the amateur painter.  “Things are happening that we did not anticipate.  As such, we have to be flexible.”

Barrett shook his head.  “People only start talking about flexibility when it comes time to pay up.  If your boss isn’t going to hold up his end of the arrangement, I don’t see what else we’ve got to talk about.”

The woman held up a hand before Barrett could turn more than a few degrees away from her.  “Think about this,” she said.  “The item wouldn’t be of any use to you, anyway.  Why not discuss this rationally, so that everyone can come away from this with what they wanted?”

Because this isn’t a discussion,” Barrett said.  “It was a business arrangement.  An arrangement, I might add, that your boss decided to go back on.  Just because the item isn’t worth anything to me doesn’t mean it isn’t worth anything to anyone.  I can get what I’m looking for another way.”

The woman in the stroller shifted her weight, so that it was mostly on her back foot.  “So you have never decided to change things up?  Even just to protect yourself?”

A deal’s a deal,” Barrett repeated.  “I showed up with what we discussed and he didn’t.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a flight to catch.  If I’m not getting payment, I don’t see any particular reason for me to stay in this city.”

He turned to leave.  As he did so, the woman knelt and pulled the knife free from her boot.  She took two long steps forward, brought the knife up, and then stabbed directly at Barrett’s unprotected back. 

I opened my mouth to cry out, but she was too close and moving too quickly.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Even though she’d moved without making a sound, even though he couldn’t possibly have seen her with his back facing her, Barrett responded to the attack with a fluid grace that defied believability.  He stepped to one side, allowing the knife to pass harmlessly through the air where his torso had been, and lashed out with a swift kick at the woman’s front knee.  She wasn’t able to change her balance quick enough to dodge, so Barrett’s attack connected solidly.  She buckled as she reversed the knife and brought it up again in a second attack. 

Barrett was ready for that one, too.  He caught the woman’s wrist in his right hand and delivered a sharp chop to her elbow with his left hand.  Her arm folded at the point of impact and, using the momentum and his own superior mass, Barrett forced the knife up into her abdomen.  He released the knife and her arm at the same time, so that he could cover her mouth and ease her to the ground.

Probably don’t want to take that out,” he said.  “There’d be a lot of bleeding and I don’t think you’ll make it very far with that kind of a hole in your stomach.”

She gurgled something in response.  I couldn’t make it out. 

Well, trying to kill someone is about as personal as you can get,” Barrett said, “but I’m not in the business of leaving bodies behind me.  Where’s your gun?”

He patted down the woman until he found her handgun.  He dropped the clip out and forced the chambered bullet out, then dropped the weapon at her side. 

Your friends will have to get you to the hospital,” he said.  “Don’t come looking for me or you won’t leave me any option but to finish the job.  Got it?”

He stood up, dusting himself off, while the woman desperately clutched at the knife in her stomach.  Then, Barrett turned and looked directly at Devlin and me.

We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he said.  “Do you have a car?”

My mouth was too dry to form a response, but Devlin managed one for us both.  “Sure, we’ve got a ride.  Have you got answers as to what the hell is going on here?”

Mind if I catch a lift, then?” Barrett asked.  “Something tells me that I’m not going to be very welcome around here for long and I’d be more than willing to share, if you are.”   

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Chapter 76

Following Barrett through the streets was easier said than done.  Michel did his best to keep the over-sized truck out of sight, but he hadn’t exactly picked an inconspicuous vehicle.  Every few minutes, Devlin called for us to stop on some side street and allow our quarry to get a little farther ahead of us.  I respected and trusted his trade craft, even as I hated that he’d chosen this moment to learn a little circumspection.

At each stop, I couldn’t suppress the fear that we were going to lose Barrett.  Dallas was a big city and the surrounding neighborhoods offered many places where a thief could hide from any pursuers.  Beyond that, none of us knew where the way stations were; if Barrett did, he’d only need an instant or two of isolation before he could enter a secret doorway or a concealed vault where we’d never be able to find him again. 

We didn’t need to find him, though…or did we?  Devlin had ceded authority over the day to me and I’d decided that tailing Barrett made the most sense.  Now that I had a little time to really think about that, I wasn’t really sure why the plan had seemed so appealing.  He was a cat burglar, not an information junkie or an informant.  He had more in common with Devlin than with the Texan, by a huge margin.  But, his presence in Dallas couldn’t be a coincidence.  Too many events were lining up for me to believe that the same thief we’d encountered in Devlin would, through sheer happenstance, be spotted at our next location.

He was here – had to be here – for some reason relating to his successful theft at the Sovereign.  If that job connected him to the Texan, then we might be able to follow him and get a better idea of where the Texan lay his head.  If his presence in Dallas related to us, then we’d know to know that too.  It would be easier for Mila to black-bag him off of the street before he had a chance to set up any type of defenses.

It was the smart move, no matter how I analyzed the problem.  That knowledge didn’t settle the uneasy feeling in my gut.  I’d been hoping to run into Barrett again.  Why, I couldn’t say, but the desire was still there.  Even just the sight of the back of his head as he strolled down the sidewalk, pausing briefly at a crosswalk to reorient himself, triggered a rush of questions I’d been ignoring since Atlanta.

Michel,” Devlin said, “is there anywhere near here that he might be headed?”

We’d been in town for the exact same amount of time and I wasn’t sure that I could find my way back to the hotel without adult guidance.  Michel, however, answered Devlin’s question with only the faintest moment of hesitation.

Some hotels,” Michel said.  “Nothing as prestigious as our own.  A commercial district, for a given value of nearby, I suppose.”

Anything else?”

We’d reached a stoplight, so both of Michel’s hands were free to fidget while he thought about the best answer.  “There is a park…” Michel said finally.

Devlin clenched one hand into a fist for just a moment, then relaxed himself.  I wasn’t going to allow that sort of obvious body language to slide without commentary.  “What’s wrong?”

Nothing’s wrong,” Devlin said.  I tapped him on the shoulder until he turned around so that I could look into his eyes; he relented after a moment or two of intense staring.  “It explains why he’s acting like this.”

Like what?”

Devlin gestured at Barrett, barely visible almost a half block away.  “He’s not in a hurry, but he’s definitely going somewhere in particular.  You can see him check for directions on his phone.  And he doesn’t seem at all concerned that someone might be following him.”

No one in Texas knows he stole something from Atlanta,” I pointed out.  “He doesn’t have to worry about the cops here arresting him on a crime that didn’t happen anywhere near their jurisdiction.”

Devlin shook his head.  “Doesn’t matter.  If I’m ever in a city with a huge population, I’m always checking my back.  It’s not just afraid of cops, either. Let’s not pretend that the underground is a really nice place, with the kind of people who don’t hold grudges and who would never look for an excuse to literally stab a rival in the back.”

I couldn’t imagine that sort of violence coming from any of the occupants at the previous night’s speakeasy.  At the same time, I’d only just experienced my first true-to-life experience with the underworld, while Devlin had practically come of age in those environments.  I would defer to his superior knowledge of the underworld, rather than offer a weak defense of the local area.

It does make sense,” Devlin continued, “if you assume that he’s going to use a park to foil anyone from getting too close.  Michel, are you talking about an open air park?”

Michel nodded. 

He’s meeting someone there, then,” Devlin said.  “No doubt about it.  Probably in an enclosed area, so that no one can read their lips from a distance, but also with a ring of empty space, so that no one can eavesdrop.”

A clever, low-take solution to the problem of curious bystanders.  In a similar situation, I would normally get Devlin to drop a listening device into someone’s pocket and eavesdrop from far away, but the only device I had at my disposal was the one the black-haired woman had used on me.  I wondered if it might be possible to reach out to the local tech community, just to acquire a few odds and ends, but couldn’t decide whether or not the risk would be worth it in the long run.

Technology isn’t a panacea for everything,” I said, mostly to myself.

What?” Devlin asked.

I shook my head and waved off the question.  “Nevermind.  How are we going to follow him into the park?”

We can’t,” Devlin said.  “Certainly not in this land-boat.  We’ll have to park this monster and start following along on foot.”

Like Hisein, in Tangier?”

Devlin nodded.  “Almost exactly like that.  I mean, Barrett’s a thief with serious skills who should really be doing a better job of staying aware of his surroundings and it’s broad daylight in a city with a lot more street presence than Tangier, but…yeah, almost exactly like that.”

I gave him a sour look, which earned a helpless shrug from Devlin in response.

All I have to do is stay close,” I said.  “Just follow you and Mila, right?”

Almost.”  Devlin searched the area in front of us for a few seconds, spotted something I couldn’t make out, and nodded to himself.  “Michel, can you drop me off there?”

Wait a second,” I said.  “Where are you going?  What are you going to be doing?”

Once he’s in position, we won’t be able to sneak up on him,” Devlin said.  “So, if we want to see who’s he’s meeting and get some kind of an idea what his reasons are for being in town, we’ve got to get in place before him.  I’m going to try to get a little bit of a head start.”

It is a very large park,” Michel pointed out.

I’m sure it is,” Devlin replied.  “But if he’s here for a meeting, that means they’ll be looking for some kind of agreed upon landmark.  And there can’t be many of those with enough seclusion to guarantee privacy.  I can figure out where they’re going to be, if I’ve got enough time to look around.”

You’re sure about that?” I asked.

Devlin hesitated, then shook his head.  “No, I’m not.  But it’s the best plan I’ve got at the moment.  Unless something with a better success rate comes along, I figure we can’t waste the opportunity.”

That was similar to what Mila had said, during our impromptu lecture at the speakeasy.  It was better to do something, and be wrong, then to do nothing, and fail for lack of trying. 

I want to come with you,” I said.

You want to…what?”

Come with you,” I repeated.  My mind worked overtime to justify that request.  “He’s seen both of us already.  On the off chance that he realizes someone’s tailing him, wouldn’t it be better if it was two people he already knows about, instead of the two members of our team he doesn’t know exist?”

Devlin made a noise, halfway between agreement and uncertainty.  “That’s assuming he’s going to figure out that I’m there at all, Sarah.  And, no offense, but it’d be better if I went alone.”

A memory from one of his attempted lectures resurfaced and I clutched at it.  “People walking alone are automatically more suspect, aren’t they?  Didn’t you say that?”

I mean…that was in one situation, and it hardly applies to every single – “

You shouldn’t go alone,” I said, hearing a thin thread of…some emotion creeping into my voice, “and I’m the person best suited to watch your back.  Mila would be better if you were going to be dealing with a possible ambush, and Michel needs to stay with the car.  You know I’m right.”

He made some more equivocating sounds, but I could see in his shoulders that he couldn’t come up with any good reasons to turn me down.  Which made it ironic that I could think of about a half dozen with a minimum amount of effort.  Mila’s skillset, while skewed heavily towards confrontation, did afford her a certain amount of stealth.  And Michel didn’t have to stay with the car; he only had to be available to drive it, should things go wrong.  Really, by almost any objective measure, I was the worst person to accompany Devlin while he crept closer to whatever meeting Barrett was headed to.

Except that Mila had been so convincing.  I didn’t have any other ideas and, in less dire straits, I would attempt to stall for time while I plotted.  Time wasn’t my ally, though, and I couldn’t shake a sense of guilt that had been lurking at the edges of my mind since the speakeasy.  It wasn’t fair of me to order the rest of the team around while I waited, safe and secure, in a ready-made escape vehicle.  Especially not when their lives were on the line specifically because of a former associate of mine.

Fine,” Devlin said.  “But you have to follow my cues and my orders.  If I tell you to run, you have to run.  Do you understand?”

Why would I have to-“

Devlin snapped his fingers in the air with a loud pop like gunfire, instantly focusing my attention on him and killing any further words I’d been about to speak.  “Do.  You.  Understand?”

I nodded mutely.  That didn’t seem to satisfy him, so I swallowed and found my voice.  “I understand.”

He sighed.  “This is a terrible idea,” he muttered to himself…but he didn’t say anything to make me think he was rethinking the decision.

Michel pulled the car into a parallel spot, so that Devlin and I could get out.  I grabbed my bag of goodies and threw it over one shoulder; Devlin patted himself down for thirty seconds, securing whatever tools he’d managed to hide on his person.

Keep your phone on,” Devlin said to Michel and Mila. “And don’t get too far away.  I think the worst thing that’ll happen is that we blow our cover – which, as Sarah pointed out, is already nonexistent – but I don’t want to start taking any chances.”

While we’d been shadowing Barrett, Mila had stayed quiet.  I’d expected her to speak out against my impulsive move to join Devlin, but any potential misgivings were unreadable in her expression.  “Are you carrying anything on you?”

Pepper spray,” Devlin said, “and that pair of brass knuckles you picked up for me.”

She frowned.  “That’s all?”

Devlin winked at her.  “And you, of course.  What better protection could there possibly be?”

Mila rolled her eyes and the frown dissipated.  “Call if there’s trouble.”

I’ll call before there’s trouble,” Devlin said.  “Come on, Sarah.”

Mila and Michel pulled away, while Devlin and I cut through an alley that eventually opened up into a lush, green park after a minute or two of travel.  The city park butted up against several, more urban locations, but the utilitarian design of those buildings didn’t take away from the feeling of nature in the air around us.  Two dozen people, maybe more, walked, chatted, flirted, and snacked on an array of blankets, picnic tables, and park benches.  Most wore casual clothing, like me: jeans, t-shirts, the occasional button-up or blouse.  Some were dressed in business attire, clearly on lunch from one of the adjacent offices.  And some families wore shorts and tank tops while they tossed a Frisbee around, or played touch football, or otherwise occupied their time.

Barrett, when I was able to spot him again, stood out from everyone else by virtue of his presence.  Straight-backed, confident, and driven, he walked unhurriedly in a specific direction and the rest of the park’s residents seemed to melt away from him as he approached.  It was almost an unconscious gesture on their part, as if they simply felt his mission – whatever that mission might be – and realized that they didn’t want to get in his way.

It was unnerving as hell to witness, even as it was incredibly useful to us, in the moment.

Devlin mimicked the demeanor and jovial air of the people around us and I followed suit.  We strolled through the groups, waving hello to strangers, turning down pick-up games, and high-fiving children, but Barrett remained our focus.  We tailed him off of the main path without drawing his attention and even managed to stay unseen as he turned down a less populated path, headed toward his meeting place.

Plan B,” Devlin said.  He was using his regular voice, which couldn’t possibly carry far enough for Barrett to hear us.

What’s plan B?”

He reached into his shirt pocket and removed a pair of folding binoculars.  “We won’t beat him to his landmark, but we might be able to get close enough for me to lip read.  Did you bring anything to write down what he says?”

I fished out my phone, so that I could wave it in front of his face.  “I can record what you tell me,” I said.  “Honestly, who writes things down anymore?”

People who don’t want their files to be hacked?” Devlin suggested.  Then he winced and turned to face me fully.  “Sorry.  Too far?”

Just far enough,” I said.  He was right, after all. Just because it stung didn’t make it an unfair criticism.  “But don’t gloat about it.  I think he’s…wherever he’s supposed to be.”

Sure enough, Barrett had stepped off of the sparsely populated path and walked through a wall of tall bushes. He picked a moment when the only people in a position to see him – a mother casually pushing a stroller built for twins, a pair of joggers, and an amateur artist working on a landscape portrait – were all distracted by their own tasks.

Devlin let out a low whistle. “Not bad,” he said. “Not great, but -”

He stopped talking. I waited for him to finish the thought. When he didn’t, I nudged him with my elbow. “Not what?”

Devlin didn’t respond. I looked at the expression on his face, slowly hardening and cooling into the mask he wore when he needed to focus entirely on the job, then followed his line of sight. He was fixated on the woman with the twins. From where we stood, Devlin and I were practically invisible to everyone on the lower portion of the path, nearer to the wall of shrubbery that Barrett had disappeared into.

That put us in a unique position to see the woman reach into her stroller and, with an excruciatingly casual air, remove an incredibly long knife and a pistol. She slipped the knife into her boot and pulled the leg of her jeans down to cover it, then screwed a silencer onto the pistol.

The joggers stopped and nodded at her. Both of them moved to take up positions further along the path, where they’d be able to intercept anyone approaching from that side of the park. The amateur painter put aside his work and strolled towards us. Something metallic glinted in his hand and I realized that the paintbrush was too long, too pointed, to actually be a paintbrush.

I looked back at Devlin, just as he hauled on my arm and pulled me off of the path. He fished out his phone and dialed a number.

Mila,” he said. “Just try not to say ‘I told you so’ until after you’ve come and rescued us.”

Chapter 75

It took less time for me to finish my preliminary research than expected, but only because I was able to find even fewer scant tidbits of information than my most modest estimations. There just wasn’t any good way to look up a person without a name, social security number, address, childhood home, or any bit of identifiable information. There was some rudimentary facial recognition software in my cloud, but I hadn’t yet been able to get a picture of him. And, of course, I’d been forced to lock down the cloud in order to buy what meager time I had available to me. So that was out as an option.

What I did to pass the time while Michel showered, Devlin took care of his preparations, and Mila worked off her stress was to look into the history of Dallas itself. The late night trip to the speakeasy underneath Mockingbird Station had given me a few errant thoughts that deserved pursuit. In London, we’d found Asher holed up in an abandoned train station that had doubled as a bomb shelter during one of the World Wars. If there were similar hiding places around Dallas, I wanted to know about them in advance. Maybe we’d find the Texan’s base of operations in another hollowed out sub-basement. Even if he was using a less subterranean method to keep his secrets safe, I hadn’t yet found myself upset about having too many places to hide, should things go wrong.

And things would go wrong. Devlin’s inadvertent jinx wouldn’t be the cause when everything went pear shaped – although that wouldn’t stop me from ribbing him about it relentlessly – so much as it was simply the natural order of events. I could only hope that whatever fresh disaster awaited us would be manageable.

The image of Fatima standing over Mamoud’s cooling body, bloody knife gripped in her hand, and I amended my previous goals. I hoped that things would remain manageable and that no one would have to die.

As if summoned by my thoughts, Mila entered the room without knocking. She wore a black t-shirt and light jeans, paired with a pair of comfortable sneakers. She gave me a gruff nod and, when she turned to close the door, revealed a handgun held in a holster at the small of her back.

How much longer do you think you’ll need?” Mila asked, without bothering to issue a greeting.

I sighed and considered the tabs open in my browser. Thus far, I hadn’t been able to find anything that struck me as particularly promising. There were historical sites, but those were typically filled with tourists, and would have made a terrible location for a secret lair. Old churches from a variety of eras dotted the city and I ruled those out, as well. The most likely locations for the Texan’s home base, according to my research, could be any of at least twenty different wealthy districts. Some were farther north, outside of Fort Worth, while others were suburban and still more rubbed metaphorical shoulders with developing shopping centers.

In a word, I had nothing.

When Michel gets out of the shower, I’ll hop in and then change,” I said. “It won’t take me long.”

Mila nodded, but didn’t make any move to leave the room. She did that thing where her presence stopped intruding on my thoughts, so I allowed myself to halfway-forget about her and focused back on the computer.

In a few minutes, I managed to rule out three of the wealthy distracts, based on how travel time, local police presence, and my own guesses as to where there might be branches of the underworld. Dallas was large enough that the speakeasy couldn’t be the only method available to the aspiring thief. In other cities, according to the memories I could recall from Devlin’s lectures, a large hub often facilitated jobs that would require multiple parties or coordinating teams. Smaller jobs that were less dangerous and proportionately less lucrative could be accepted at…well, he’d used the term ‘way stations’ to describe them, but I thought of them more like subway stops.

There wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason to what sort of way station a given town or city would have, but my experience in the speakeasy led me to the assumption that they were likely running as otherwise legitimate businesses during daylight hours. That would make it harder for me to identify them at a glance, but I could still decide which locations were too well-trafficked or too thoroughly policed to remain as hubs as illegal activity for very long. For the rest, I’d have to ask a source with inside knowledge.

Come over here for a second,” I said, gesturing at Mila. “Tell me if I’ve got this right so far.”

She sauntered over to the desk and gave my drawn-up map a quick examination. “There was a way station there,” she said, pointing at a spot I’d crossed off, “but that was years ago. Maybe a few years before they opened up a police station just a few blocks away.”

Do you know where any others are?”

Mila shook her head. “I never dealt with those kinds of jobs,” she said. “And I wasn’t in town that long. There are signs, I know that much, but I won’t be able to tell you if we’re in the right place until we’re actually in the right place.”

I sighed. There went any chance of avoiding an entire day spent fruitlessly wandering around the city, hoping that dumb luck might come streaking out of the sky like a bolt of lightning, complete with answers to every question we might ask. If Mila could identify way stations in person, at least that meant we wouldn’t have to knock on every door and search every floorboard and fridge for secret containers.

Pass codes?”

When we went to the speakeasy,” Mila said, “word went out that I’m back in town. As far as they’re concerned, you’re just a client, but I’m well known enough that we won’t need identification to get into any station.”

And the Twins? What will they be doing?”

Mila paused and pursed her lips. Sam jumped onto the dresser next to her and she began scratching his back, eliciting a series of rumbling purrs from the feline like a jet engine just before take off. “I don’t know. They said they’ll lay low, but I don’t believe that. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re going to look for the Texan too.”

Is there any way we can work together with them?” I asked. “Not like with Billy or Fatima, but just as…I don’t know, non-competing allies. We could search different areas, share information, that sort of thing.”

Mila shook her head, more forcefully than I expected. “That…wouldn’t be a good idea.”

I raised an eyebrow, wordlessly inviting her to elaborate.

Akumi and Sato aren’t bodyguards,” Mila said. “I mean, they have protected people in the past, but that’s not their specialty.”

What’s their specialty, then?’

She gave me a long look.

A lump of nervous fear appeared in my throat and I swallowed it back down as surreptiously as possible. “Oh. Well.”

They don’t work well with other people, excepting the pair of them,” Mila continued, “and they have a bad habit of abandoning anyone else who’s working with them in order to save the other from even minor risk.”

You’ve worked with them before, though, haven’t you?”

Mila shrugged. “I can take care of myself. And I can take care of the rest of you. But I can’t do all that and watch the Twins to make sure they haven’t decided their chances would be better with one of us handicapped.”

I hadn’t really been thinking about using the Twins as anything other than a resource, so Mila’s condemnation of their loyalties didn’t disrupt anything too badly. For that to happen, I would have needed a more concrete plan, for starters.

Michel opened the bathroom door and peeked his head outside. “I heard the two of you talking,” he said, “and so I thought it would be best if I told you that I am finished showering. I need to, uh…”

Right, right,” I said. I switched off my laptop and physically pulled the Ethernet cord from the back before standing up.

Mila looked down at the unplugged cord, then back up at me.

I shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”

We waited in the hallway for Michel to dry off and dress, then he and Mila went downstairs to find something to eat while I took a shower of my own. When I’d showered and changed into a fresh set of clothing, I felt marginally better about the day ahead of me. Still not great, of course, because I couldn’t completely get rid of the ticking clock at the back of my thoughts, but…better. Fresh clothes had a way of doing that.

I pocketed some necessities for the day, hesitating only briefly at the box containing the listening device before I swept it into my backpack as well. The same metal that stopped it from sending or receiving signals would also stymie any efforts to track it by GPS. I didn’t think that anything that size would really be able to transmit location data over a wide radius, but I’d fallen out of love with unnecessary risks. The only reason I carried it with me at all was a deep, irrational fear that a maid would open the box or knock it over by accident. Or, heaven forbid, Virginia coming back to the hotel and blithely talking to CJ about my whole situation when a potential open mic was in the room.

The smartest thing to do would be to destroy it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. In lieu of that, keeping the listening device neutralized but close by seemed like a worthy runner-up of a plan.

Downstairs, I found the rest of the team enjoying breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t know how Devlin could have talked to the chef into preparing breakfast at nearly two in the afternoon and, after I spotted a plate of medium-boiled eggs with a side of french toast, I didn’t much care. We ate mostly in companionable silence, broken only when Michel or Devlin asked Mila or me a question about our nighttime activities. They didn’t have much commentary to add, except that Michel seemed wary of the Twins and Mila, for some reason, appeared reluctant to talk more about them to Michel.

Odd. Very odd.

When we finished eating our weight in pancakes, bacon, and eggs, Michel led us to the garage where he revealed his latest rental: a flame-red, oversized, four-door truck, lifted several inches higher than necessary.

You would prefer to fit in, no?” Michel asked, in answer to the three judgmental stares sent his way.

The truck’s interior – or its cab, as Michel insisted multiple times – was more comfortable than I would have assumed and the ride was smooth. Whether that had anything to do with the road, the vehicle’s shocks, or the fact that Michel drove the land boat like an arthritic grandmother was up for grabs. Although, while he wove his way through Dallas’ lunch hour traffic, Mila, Devlin, and I discussed the matter at great length, to his irritation and embarrassment.

I needed that: the normalcy, the gallows’ humor. Since London, the four of us have been dancing one step ahead of the executioner, only barely dodging the blade every time we accepted and accomplished another of the Lady’s impossible jobs. We’d become something more than just a team over the last six months. In a very real way, the three of them had become family.

Well…the two of them. Devlin was a special case. I didn’t think he’d ever really stop being a part of my heart and I wasn’t sure how I should feel about that.

But when we were all together, heading towards trouble instead of neck-deep in it, we’d established a comfortable working rhythm. The banter had been an essential part of our first success as a team and, appropriately, it served as the bedrock of our relationship now. No matter how dire the situation – armed police closing in at Hill’s estate or child kidnappers surrounding us in a burning shantytown – we could always fall back on the banter. It kept us sane, even as it allowed us to realize how insane our lives had become.

As long as we could joke, things weren’t too bad. I told myself that, over and over. As long as we could find the humor in the absurdity, then we hadn’t yet reached a point of absolute despair. When that happened…I didn’t want to think about what would happen to our team when that happened.

Dumb luck picked that exact moment to strike, like a bolt of lightning in a clear sky, and I also missed it.

Devlin saw it first. He was in the front seat and his eyes, accustomed to cracking safes in dark rooms, were sharper than mine. He sucked in a breath at something I couldn’t yet make out, which shattered the jovial mood in the truck’s interior in an instant.

What is it?” Mila asked. One of her hands snaked around to the small of her back, while the other dipped in the direction of her ankle. I almost asked how many guns she was carrying before deciding that some things were better left unknown.

Sarah,” Devlin said. “Does he look familiar to you?”

I leaned forward, narrowing my eyes against the sun’s glare, until I could make out the shape Devlin was indicating. When the silhouette clarified, I sucked in a breath of my own. The odds were insane. They were astronomical.

That’s impossible,” Devlin said. “Right?”

I shook my head. “It’s incredibly possible,” I said, “as long as you discount any possibility of it being a coincidence.”

So you’re thinking…”

Only a few options,” I said. “Either he’s here working a job for the Texan which is…”

Unlikely,” Devlin finished. “Though technically possible. What else?”

He was working a job for the Texan?” I suggested. “Something that he’s only just now getting around to turning in?”

Devlin nodded slowly, turning the idea around in his mind so that he could examine it from multiple mental angles. “Timing makes sense. You weren’t expecting to meet the Texan for another two days, so he could very well have had meetings scheduled beforehand. But why send us up if -”

He cut off as he noticed the dry stares from Mila and Michel. “Oh no,” Mila said, “don’t mind us. Please, continue with your own conversation. Let us know what’s going on whenever you’re good and ready.”

You know,” Devlin said, allowing a thin smirk to appear on his lips, “you weren’t sarcastic when we met.”

Of course I was,” she countered. “You were just too busy trying to get yourself killed to notice. Who’s that, and should I be worried about him?”

That,” I said, “is the cat burglar we encountered at the Sovereign. Here, in Dallas, right when we happen to be here too.”

Mila growled. She legitimately growled, like an oversized tiger. “No way that things just happen to line up like this. Did he follow you?”

I shook my head. “No way. I didn’t buy the tickets and he wouldn’t have known to look for Virignia’s traveling plans.”

Then what?” Mila asked.

There’s a third option,” Devlin suggested. “He could be working against the Texan. There are an awful lot of hitmen in town right now. One more wouldn’t be out of place…especially if things could be blamed on a pair of rogue, leaderless assassins with a grudge on their shoulders.”

Take out possible assets,” I said, working through the problem in my own mind, “and remove someone who could help us locate the rest of the Community, all in one fell swoop. Plus, it doesn’t require that he get out of his chair. That sounds like something the Mouse would do.”

Sarah?” Michel asked. “What do you want me to do?”

I looked at Devlin for support or for answers. I wasn’t sure which. Somehow, in a moment of transcendent clarity, he gave me both with a simple nod and dangerous smile that brought a rush of old memories flooding up to the surface after so many years spent suppressed.

Follow him,” I said.

Chapter 74

After ushering Devlin out of my room and depositing Michel onto the couch to sleep it off, I spent the next few hours trying to build some sort of framework for my slapdash plan. Really, I only had the barest shadow of a goal – namely, to make the Texan think he was under attack – and no meaningful ideas for how I could accomplish said goal. Without additional research, all I could do was draft loose outlines and hope for the best.

The work didn’t go well, but it was comforting, in an odd way. While I still didn’t have the sort of lead time I preferred, at least I wasn’t cobbling together a full-fledged infiltration plan in a handful of hours. Drawing up lines of attack, revising those lines, and discarding the ones that wouldn’t pan out was familiar work. That familiarity helped to soothe my frayed nerves as the night wore on; eventually, the even blue light of my computer screen eased me into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When I woke, a thin trail of drool extended onto my bare arm and I could feel the impression of computer keys against my skin. Immediately, I wiped at my mouth and looked around the room to make sure that I wouldn’t have to eliminate any witnesses. Thankfully, Michel was still passed out on the couch, mouth wide open and looking decidedly undignified. I checked the time – just a little before noon – and then started looking around for my phone. I’d done some technical witchcraft, so that any phone calls sent to one of my myriad burners would be mirrored onto the latest version.

No new calls, which wasn’t surprising. I had received two text messages, however, at some point after I’d spoken to Devlin but before I’d fallen asleep. Apparently, I’d missed the notification sound.

You do good work. I got everything I needed and a good bit besides. You’re officially a source, so you got nothing to worry about from me. Don’t be a stranger, now.

The message came from a blocked phone number and was unsigned. With time, I could have found out what number the Texan was using, but I didn’t think that would lead to anything useful in the long term. For the moment, I allowed a sense of relief to wash over me. Whatever the Texan had been looking for, we’d managed to steal it in our wholesale smash-and-grab back in Atlanta. At least I didn’t have to worry about him spilling my secret to the world…assuming, of course, that he was a man of his word.

The second text message also came from a blocked number. I noticed that the syntax was subtly different, even as I was absolutely certain that both messages came from the same sender.

I don’t know what you were looking for, but it’s in your best interest to drop it. If you need help getting leads for new work, I can help. Otherwise, you should find somewhere else to set up shop, as soon as possible.

The Texan was mysterious and affable, in equal measure; at no point since meeting him in London had he ever been rude. He’d barely even seemed threatening. Yet something about our brief conversation at the speakeasy had him on the defensive, to the point where he was making thinly veiled threats via text message. That stark change in personality made my eyebrows climb. There was more going on here than I could see. There was always more going on beneath the surface.

He’d sent both messages within thirty minutes of each other, his thanks coming in exactly twenty-seven minutes before his warning. I wondered if he’d found something in the files to trigger the shift in demeanor, but dismissed that thought after only a few moments. He’d been jumpy at the speakeasy and started acting strangely on the heels of his Holmes-esque summation of my last six months at work. Something in the files could have solidified his position, but it couldn’t have created it.

Could he already be working for the Magi, or otherwise aware of their existence? Information was his primary currency, after all, and there were at least a few folks in the higher echelons of the criminal underworld with knowledge about the shadowy puppeteers. But, no, that wasn’t right either. If he was already an agent of the Magi, willing or otherwise, he would’ve wanted – needed, in fact – to find out what we already knew. The Magi obviously knew that they were under attack by someone, or someones, and they wouldn’t have allowed one of their employees to pass up an opportunity to narrow down the offenders.

Was he under their thumb, like Asher and Hill had been, but seeking to find a way to turn the tables on his masters? That was…possible. It was definitely something to keep in mind, even though it wasn’t particularly useful for the immediate problem. If it turned out that the Texan could be turned against the Magi as a weapon in his own right, he could do a lot in the field of disinformation and intelligence gathering. He probably wouldn’t want to be an active participant in our attacks, but I wouldn’t complain about having our own source of intelligence instead of relying exclusively on the tidbits the Lady saw fit to dispense.

Whatever the reason, he was spooked. That much was obvious. I didn’t know the man well enough to correctly guess what had put him on edge and, if I couldn’t find a way to push him into a defensive posture, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do so.

I sighed and passed a hand over my eyes. This was exactly the area in which Devlin excelled. He’d met the Texan twice. That would be enough for a rudimentary profile, based more on instincts than quantifiable data…but even a rudimentary profile was better than the complete absence of information we had now. I could play things fast and loose, if it was necessary for me to do so, but I couldn’t work blind.

Someone knocked at the door to my room. I crossed the room and opened the door to reveal Devlin standing in the hallway. He still wore his jeans from the previous night, although he’d found the time to change his shirt and shower. Red lines in his eyes told me how he was holding up.

Have a good time last night?” I asked, tilting my head and giving him my sweetest smile.

He grunted in response and gestured dumbly at the couch, where Michel still slept. “Don’t let him lie to you,” Devlin said. “He’s not human. Can’t be.”

That bad, eh?”

As soon as the locals found out that he was a foreigner, everyone started tripping over themselves trying to get his attention. Women wanted to flirt with him, men wanted to pick up some tricks.” Devlin paused. “Maybe men wanted to flirt, too. I don’t know.”

And that left you all by yourself?”

Devlin shrugged. “Wasn’t looking for anything. Anyway. Your friend must have been given a dozen shots and I took one every time he did.”

I adjusted my tone so that I sounded like a reproaching mother, instead of a teammate. “Well, that wasn’t a very good choice, was it?”

Devlin glared at me. The effect was spoiled by his wobbly balance and general bleariness. “One day,” he said, “you’re going to want some sympathy. And I’m going to remember this. Now, would you like to invite me in or should I just fall out right here?”

Come in, come in.” I moved out of the doorway and Devlin sidled past me, locating a chair at my work desk. He plopped down unceremoniously. I’d been planning to sit there and return to my work, but the bed wasn’t too far away. I took a seat there and waited.

I seem to remember you saying something crazy last night,” Devlin said finally. “I don’t remember what, though. Something about the Magi?”

I glanced over to my jacket before responding. The listening device from the black-haired woman was still in there, but I’d checked to make sure that it didn’t possess long range capabilities. Any distance longer than a few yards would be too far for it to transmit, which explained why the black-haired woman had stayed so close to our table. As such, there wasn’t any for someone to use the device as a listening tool while we were in our hotel rooms.

It still made me nervous, but I squelched that nervousness. If I was being eavesdropped on now, then there was little I could do to stop the guilty party. And, if I wasn’t, I ran the risk of allowing paranoia to rule my life.

I split the difference. I walked over the jacket, removed the listening device, and dropped it into a tiny metal box Id’ started carrying with me a few years before the abrupt pause in my criminal career. Unobtrusive and innocuous, the box was made of an entirely reflective alloy that stifled any type of wave attempting to pass through it. We had used it to sneak some choice tools onto planes, when flight was necessary. Now, it worked perfectly as a device to ensure the listening device didn’t post any threat.

My room had come equipped with its very own coffee maker. I started a pot while I explained the previous night’s conversation to Devlin. Now sober, if a little belabored, he was better equipped to follow along. He listened quietly to the whole story, sipping on the coffee when I presented it to him, and didn’t say anything until after I’d finished.

So your plan,” he said slowly, “is to pretend to be the people we’re trying to take down?”

Not really,” I said. I took a sip from my own coffee, more out of habit than any real desire. “But, for whatever reason, the Texan isn’t interested in an information exchange. We need to give him some sort of reason to take us up on our offer.”

And, in order to do that, you want to…what, exactly?”

I sighed. Either Devlin’s brain wasn’t fully recovered from its pickling the previous night or my idea was too far-fetched, even for him. I decided to believe the former option. “He knows people are getting attacked across the world, but he doesn’t know who and he doesn’t know why. I’m suggesting that we figure out a way to make him think his power base in Texas is being targeted and then subtly push the blame for that onto the Magi.”

Or some other organization that isn’t already trying to locate our footprints?”

I shook my head. “Wouldn’t work. You didn’t see him at the speakeasy, Dev. Man is connected. I wouldn’t want to blame some group he has inside knowledge of, because then he’ll start disbelieving everything as a matter of course.”

Devlin scratched at his wispy beard. He hadn’t shaved in a while, but the facial hair simply refused to grow in. “So we’ve got one chance before he puts his blinders on and starts ignoring anything he doesn’t personally vet?”

Assuming he hasn’t already started to do that,” I said. “Think about how much he knows. Whatever he says, I can’t believe there aren’t groups out there literally willing to kill to get their hands on the secrets he’s collected.”

I’m not shocked,” Devlin said. I raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to continue. “It’s like he said at the Green Light, Sarah. Secrets don’t just make him dangerous, they also keep him protected. You can set up automatic emails, to be sent at a certain time. Even I can do that. If he has some secret account, unconnected to anything he’s doing, with a wealth of data programmed to go out if he doesn’t check in every twenty-four hours, that’d be enough to keep most people from trying their luck.”

And,” I said, “even without a force of bodyguards to his name, he’d be able to rely on more well-equipped and well-established individuals to have a vested interest in his safety. It’s definitely elegant.”

And it keeps his footprint small, metaphorically speaking. Hard to target a single man without any external assets to pinpoint and attack.” Devlin’s words were discouraging, but his tone was rapidly becoming more interested. “But, at the same time, that would mean he’s less likely to have built up any real defenses for himself. That’s one benefit to living life with a constant target on your back, I guess.”

Keeps you looking over your shoulder,” I finished. He flashed a grin at me and I caught a glint of that old familiar fire in his eyes, burning through the mist of latent inebriation. Without consciously deciding to do so, I found myself smiling back at him.

It’s definitely something he isn’t going to expect,” Devlin said. “How do you want to go about doing it?”

Well,” I said, “if you hadn’t so rudely interrupted me, I had been planning on spending the morning trying to ferret out whatever intelligence I can lay hands on. After that…”

After that,” Devlin said, “we can hit the town. I want to see this speakeasy, if you don’t mind, and there’s always a chance that we could stumble onto an old friend with knowledge that might be useful.”

I nodded my agreement. I was an idea person. Even if I was being forced to create increasingly shoddy plans, due to circumstances and an ever-shrinking amount of lead-in time, that didn’t change my fundamental nature. Devlin was simply the best choice for a street level conversationalist. He’d be able to sneak out information without giving away his true intentions.

It occurred to me that, as I joined him on his perusal of the greater Dallas area, I might be able to pick up some tricks from him. Mila’s comments had gotten under my skin, probably deeper than she’d intended them to. Thus far, my membership on the team had been contingent on my prowess with computers. That was an essential part of the process, but it was also a part of the process that kept me removed from danger. It wasn’t fair of me to ask them to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself.

I just needed a little more practice. That was all. Besides, Devlin had been trying to teach me the finer points of social manipulation for years. He’d probably leap at the opportunity to demonstrate some of the finer points, in the name of education.

Michel stirred on the couch. Without opening his eyes, he groaned and then spoke. “If you will give me a few hours to recover,” Michel said, “I will be able to drive you around.”

You were awake?” Devlin and I asked, at the same time.

He extended an arm and flicked his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Not the entire time,” he said. “Long enough to hear what you are planning.”

It’s just reconnaissance,” Devlin said. Instantly he regretted the turn of phrase, but it was too late. Bad luck had already reared its ugly head.

Even Michel opened one eye to gape at him. Then he pushed himself up from the couch and tottered in the direction of the bathroom. A moment later, the shower turned on.

Feeling bold today, are we?” I asked him.

Feeling irritated, actually. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Strange. Devlin normally was a talker. If he wanted privacy, that had to mean someone had seriously wronged him 0n this of all days. Whatever the reason for his reticence to speak up, his personality didn’t seem to be any different. In the past, whenever he’d been upset about something, he’d sulked and brooded and complained.

I didn’t have the time to delve into his psyche, though, so I put my concern for his issues onto the back burner and focused my thoughts instead on the day’s upcoming work.

Virginia’s out with CJ,” Devlin said, answering the next question I’d been about to ask. “She wanted to show him the town.”

Do you know where they are, specifically?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t ask, sorry. But I got the impression that he wanted to see the touristy parts of town. They shouldn’t be anywhere near the places we’ll be visiting.”

That would have to do. “Mila?”

Went for a run earlier,” Devlin said. “She said that she needed to burn off some stress, so I’m guessing she’s a little more bothered by her run-in with the Twins than she’s letting on.”

I’m guessing that judging Mila by what she allows you to see isn’t the best way to get her temperature, so to speak.”

Devlin raised his hands, palms facing the ceiling. “Fair point. Anyway. You want her to come along?”

She’s done work in town before,” I said. “If she can point us in the direction of the local movers and shakers, you can work your magic on them.”

Tag team approach. I like it. Plus, if Michel wasn’t too blitzed to remember anything from last night, he should have a pretty good idea of the city’s layout…at least, the places we’re headed.” He stood up from the desk. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll leave you to do your thing.”

I dismissed him with a wave, even as my brain kept playing his words on a loop. Tag team approach, tag team approach. In this instance, my only contribution was the suggestion of a wildly impractical plan that was more than likely to blow up in our faces.

Devlin stopped at the door. “Good thinking, by the way. Not that you need to hear that from me, but still.”

My cheeks warmed at the compliment, followed immediately by even more embarrassment that a benign compliment could draw that kind of reaction from me. “I know, I’m a genius like that.” I faked a cough and flicked my hand at him again. “Now go away, you’re distracting me.”

Devlin flashed another grin and disappeared into the hallway.

I moved from the bed back to the computer desk, listening to the echoes in my mind. Tag team approach. And, on the heels of that, the single word that had motivated me into a reckless plan of attack: adapt.

I could adapt. I would adapt. It wasn’t like I had any other choice, after all.

Chapter 73

While Mila spoke to the Twins about her debt and how she could help them, I fumed all by myself at the abandoned table. A part of my mind dedicated itself to tuning out the raucous sounds of the speakeasy, so that the greater part of my mental hardware could focus on the insurmountable problems ahead of us.

I’d assumed, with good reason, that the Texan would leap at the opportunity to learn some of the secrets in my head. With even the most cursory knowledge about the Magi’s existence, he’d be able to connect all sorts of dots. It was literally priceless information and he’d…turned it down? What had I missed? What possible reason could he have for walking away from the secret of a lifetime?

The first thing I needed to acknowledge was simple enough: I really didn’t know anything about the Texan. His methodology, how far his sphere of influence extended, even how long he’d been involved in the information business…everything about him was a total blank. I’d planned to spend at least two days collecting details from the local underworld denizens, so that I could put together some sort of plan of attack. His presence at the speakeasy, coupled with the black-haired woman’s complicity, threw that tentative outline into utter disarray. Without anything to work with and lacking Devlin’s innate ability to accurately read and connect with people, I’d allowed my hand to be forced.

Not that it mattered. If he wasn’t interested in the information I had to offer, he wouldn’t become interested in the next few days. At least I could move on to the next step without wasting three days waiting to hear a no.

And the next step was…nothing came to mind. That was the second problem: scale and the benefits that a functioning infrastructure provided. The Texan had a network of indeterminate size staffed by rumormongers, low level grunts, lieutenants that owed him favors, and every possible flavor of informant one could imagine. I was operating without my customary computer network and the Community was, for all intents and purposes, out of commission.

Given sufficient time, he probably could put together enough pieces to guess at the Magi’s existence. Without his help, though, I couldn’t see a path that would lead me to the rest of the Community. Without their assistance, I was doomed. We all were. It was just a matter of time.

Mila stepped away from the Twins, saying something in Japanese that I didn’t catch and began picking her way through the crowd back to the table. That was the third problem: not Mila, of course, but the additional baggage she came with. In this case, that meant the Twins. In London, it had meant Aiden. How many more trained killers would pop out of the woodwork when we moved on to another job?

She was a part of our team. That much was undeniable. Even if I’d wanted to cut her loose, Devlin wouldn’t budge. Michel would probably riot. And, if I was being honest with myself, I didn’t really want her to go, either. But there was nothing to gain from pretending that her past came with a wealth of unsavory individuals with no personal morality to speak of and a willingness to be the bad guy, so long as the check cleared at the bank. The Twins were…unnerving, in a way that defied explanation. A lot of that was due to the way they played up the whole eerie twin connection, sure, but a significant amount of my discomfort was rooted in a primal sort of fear. The way they looked at other people – focused exclusively on identifying weaknesses for later exploitation – had made me feel like a prey animal in the direct path of a mountain lion.

They’d been held in check by their own desire for answers and respect for Mila. Without that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Akumi and Kira would have been perfectly content stringing me up by my toes and getting what they wanted that way, instead of asking questions over drinks. Worse: I wasn’t sure that Akumi, in particular, saw any real difference between the two tactics.

There were other problems to think about – more than I wanted to conceptualize – but Mila reached the table before I could begin spiraling down that path.

They’re going to lay low in town for about a week,” Mila said.

Why?”

Akumi says they’ve maintained some smuggling contacts in the area. She wants an opportunity to put out a few feelers and to resupply before going dark again.”

I weighed that answer. It made sense, but it was almost too straightforward. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”

Mila shook her head. “No. I don’t. Well, I think that Akumi means what she said, but Kira’s probably going to change her mind.”

That sounded more likely. Despite his punk-like fashion choices, Kira had seemed more in control of his surroundings and of himself than his sister. Their dynamic made a little more sense…which did not, in any way, make me feel better.

What do you think they’ll end up doing?”

If Goto is really out of the picture,” Mila said, “they’ll probably start looking for other means of employment. They aren’t the kind of people who do well without strict guidelines to follow, for one thing, and they’ve made enough enemies over the years that they can’t be looking forward to facing the various underworlds without a support system.”

Would they work for the Magi, if the offer came up?” I couldn’t help but think about Asher, Devlin’s old friend, who had been turned against him by the Magi’s sinister plans. Collectively, we’d managed to dispatch Asher, but it seemed like the Magi had developed a strategy in the intervening months. If they couldn’t beat us, they’d simply hire people who could beat us in our specializations. The Mouse was my direct counter, obviously. Aiden should have been Mila’s, except that he was out of commission.

Would the Twins, then, be the Magi’s weapon against our own heavy hitter?

Maybe,” Mila admitted after a long, pregnant pause. “They worked with Goto for a long time. I don’t know if they were personally loyal to him or not, though.”

That made problem number four. Or problem three and a half, maybe. Or…I shook my head, trying and failing to clear the misty confusion.

Did you have anything else you needed to do here?” I asked Mila.

She shook her head again. “Just meeting with the Twins. And getting you more accustomed to the underworld, I guess, but that…didn’t work out so well.”

Do you mind if we get out of here, then? I need some time to think about all of this and I can’t do that with all of this…this..” I indicated my surroundings with a vague, all-encompassing gesture.

Mila didn’t seem bothered by the noise and movement but she nodded her agreement anyway. I followed in her wake as she pushed through the crowd, leading us to a different secret entrance at the opposite end of the speakeasy. We went through a long tunnel, lit at regular intervals by electric bulbs inlaid into the walls, until we finally stepped out onto an unremarkable street. I called for a cab and then lapsed back into deep thought.

For the whole trip back to the hotel, Mila didn’t say a word. She didn’t erase her presence, which I’d just started getting used to, but somehow reduced it. The end result was that, while I was aware of her across the seat from me, I didn’t feel any particular need to speak to her or to break the silence. Devlin would have found the right thing to say, piercing through the dark fog of my worries; Michel would probably have been warm and encouraging. Mila’s silence – not oppressive, so much as pervasive – was entirely in line with her personality and, at least for the moment, with my mood.

By the time we reached the hotel, I’d successfully managed to think of absolutely nothing. No matter how I approached the myriad problems, I always came back to a central dilemma: without information to work with, there was no way I’d find the rest of the Community before the Mouse gained access to my files. And, without my files to use as a springboard, there was no way I could get my hands on any information, except through the Texan…who, for some inexplicable reason, wasn’t interested in what I had to sell.

What’re we going to do?” I hadn’t meant to speak the question out loud, but it slipped out anyway.

Mila paused, outstretched finger hovering an inch above the elevator’s call button. “About?”

About everything,” I said. “The Mouse is better than me. He’s better than anyone else in the Community. If he’s working for the Magi, then we’re fucked. You understand that, right?”

Mila shrugged. She moved her hand from the elevator call button to her pocket, rummaged around, and then withdrew a handful of travel-sized candy bars. She popped one into her mouth while she thought.

I don’t understand half of what you do,” she eventually said. “Breaking into safes, driving cars…I get those things. But you and your computers…I don’t understand it, no.”

You don’t have to…look. The Mouse is better than me. That’s all you have to understand. I can’t beat him, but I have to figure out something.” I glanced at the elevator and thought about Virginia and CJ. They’d probably be fast asleep at this hour. “I’ll have to cut ties with them. Walk away entirely so that they can’t be used as leverage.”

Mila sighed and unwrapped another miniature candy bar. “That’s not what I meant. I meant I don’t understand why you’re so focused on computers.”

Because that’s my thing,” I snapped. “Devlin can talk a Bedouin into buying a sand castle. Michel barely has to be in a city for an hour before he knows the back streets better than the locals. And you…you punch people, for God’s sake. All I know is computers! And now I can’t use them!”

My volume had started climbing about halfway through my diatribe. By the time I finished, I’d basically reached a full shout. There was only one attendant at the check-in desk and he was busily doing his best to vanish from sight. I felt my cheeks warm and thanked the heavens, for the billionth time, that blushing was a physical impossibility.

Mila gave me a cool stare for what felt like an eternity before she shook her head softly and unwrapped another candy. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” she said finally.

I was breathing harder than necessary. With each passing second, I felt more and more embarrassed at my outburst. I’d been losing my temper more and more frequently as of late, and I couldn’t blame that entirely on the situation with the Mouse. Yet another thing to add to my growing list of issues to discuss with my doctor.

Not just the bodyguard work,” Mila continued. “Other things, before this. You know what I’m talking about.”

I did. While she wasn’t necessarily ashamed of what she’d done with Aiden, she also never spoke about it directly. I suspected that she’d answer a direct question, if asked, but I was positive that I wouldn’t like those answers. So I merely nodded and indicated that she should go on.

Before I took this contract,” she said, “I thought I’d seen everything. But then I find out that there’s this whole world of people doing all these backroom deals. The Magi, the Lady, the Texan…people without names, without faces, without identities. It’s insane. I mean it; this really is insane.”

It’s not like I’ve had any more experience with this than you,” I said.

Except for the Mouse?” Mila immediately countered. “The rest of your…friends, I guess, from the Community?”

I had to acknowledge that with a slight nod. It was easy to forget about the details when dealing with the massive forces moving against us from the shadows. Perspective. I had to keep perspective.

Anyway,” Mila said. “That’s not what I meant. I’m used to dealing with things in the most direct way possible: kick in the door, punch everyone who looks like they need punching, pull out a gun or a knife if necessary. It’s simple that way. I’ve been doing things like that for a long time. But you know what?”

What?”

I saved a little girl from a drug dealer,” Mila said. “And I sat at a table while you rigged a roulette game from half a mile away in Macao. We turned three armies against each other, and we did that without firing a single shot. You understand what I’m saying?”

I shook my head.

I’m saying that I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and I’m finding out new things I can do every day I’m working this contract,” Mila said. “So, no, I don’t get why you’re so focused on just the computers. I think you’re just too focused on the big picture and worrying about what you can’t do to solve everything all at once. Fine. Learn something new. Solve this problem.”

She finished her candy, wiped her hands against her jeans, and pressed the elevator call button. When it arrived, she stepped inside without waiting for me.

What do you think we should do?” I asked her.

As the doors closed, Mila gave me a crooked smile and shrugged one more time. “I don’t know,” she said. “You’ll figure it out. You always do, don’t you?”

I suppressed the urge to shout at the elevator doors. Mila really had been spending too much time with Devlin. She’d picked up his dramatic sense, which seemed profoundly unnecessary. It was a great exit line and I had to give it high marks for theatricality…it just provided no usable information.

When I was back in my bedroom, staring listlessly up at the ceiling from the bed and idly stroking Sam’s fur, I found my thoughts running back over Mila’s words. I tended to think of Mila as a fighter, first, and a member of our team second. In reality, she’d been given relatively few opportunities to exercise her stated specialty since joining up with us. There were always occasions when things went horribly wrong and we needed some extra muscle, but it wasn’t like we kept her on the bench until those moments arose. Normally, she was elbow deep in the mess with the rest of us, planning and plotting like an old professional.

We hadn’t even consciously asked her to change. The demands of her job – namely, protecting us from the ever-increasing number of enemies we accrued – required her to change, lest she be out of position when we needed her. And Mila had adapted without complaint to fit the bill…or, more accurately, with a relatively small number of complaints. We still had to spend an inordinate amount of time convincing her to limit herself to handguns, instead of assault rifles. But still. The point remained.

I thought about what Devlin had said, back in Atlanta. Whenever he reached an impasse, there were a few questions he asked himself. What did he have, what did he need, and how could he get it? I posed those questions to myself, unsure what answers the deep recesses of my mind would provide.

What did I have? Other than a deadline looming overhead like a guillotine, I was also in possession of a wealth of secrets. Some of them wouldn’t be useful, while others would only serve to shoot myself in the foot, but there were some big ones I could bargain with.

What did I need? The Texan was interested in information, or else he wouldn’t have bothered setting up a meeting in the first place. But something had stopped him from leaping at the opportunity. Without crawling into his head, I couldn’t imagine any way to figure out what was causing him to hesitate.

How could I get what I wanted? Enticement hadn’t worked. Threatening him wouldn’t work, either. For the moment, he was being incredibly civil with my team, and he also held the secret of my identity…even if he didn’t necessarily know how valuable that information might be to the right parties. Pissing him off wasn’t a winning plan.

He was scared of something, but I didn’t know what. If I couldn’t remove the reason for his hesitation, then..

The answer dawned on me. It was exactly the sort of idiotic plan that Devlin would come up with. I would hear him out, spend hours excoriating him for how stupid he was being…and then, somehow, we’d pull it off in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.

Adapt. I needed to adapt.

Michel stumbled into the room, with Devlin right on his heels. They were both blind drunk. Dev tripped over his own feet, caught himself, and then fell onto the bed anyway. Sam protested with a loud, angry hiss and darted up to a higher perch just in time to avoid Michel’s own graceless fall.

You know,” Devlin said to the ceiling, “they say that everything’s bigger in Texas.”

I did not know they meant the shots,” Michel said.

Neither did I!”

I leveled a scathing glare at them, but neither man was sober enough for my impressive glare to have much effect. I sighed instead and nudged them with my foot until they moved over enough for me to lay down as well.

The three of us stared up into the darkness without conversation for a minute or two before Devlin turned his head and tried to focus on my face. “What did you find out tonight? Mila texted us that you two were going out.”

Not much,” I admitted. “Ran into the Texan ahead of schedule. He isn’t interested in what we’re selling, yet.”

Yet?”

I gave him my most mischievous smile. “He isn’t motivated,” I said. “But the Magi might just have decided to do a little breaking and entering. To provide a little…perspective.”

Chapter 72

If there had ever been an opportunity to sneak out of the room without confronting the Texan, that opportunity had clearly passed. The black-haired waitress was nowhere to be seen. The bubble of space around our table had previously only been one of impressions: the idea that everyone would pretend not to hear things discussed between professionals and, in return, those same professionals would extend similar courtesies. Now, there was an actual physical vacuum in our surrounding vicinity. Men and women both stopped their dances, their muttered conversations, and their raucous celebrations whenever they drew within a few yards of where we sat; then, as if by unspoken unanimous agreement, they found somewhere else to be.

That left the five of us sitting at the table, like a lonely island in a sea of humanity. Akumi and Sato responded to the Texan’s opening overture by defaulting to the same personalities they’d used on me, at first. Akumi sat up straighter and pulled her jet black hair up into a severe ponytail, clearing her vision and casting her cheekbones in a stark light. Kira slouched slightly and assumed a position that had to be uncomfortable, even though he stayed in that contorted shape without betraying the slightest hint of pain.

Those were their war faces, I realized. Without inside knowledge about their true natures, anyone the Twins dealt with would of course think of Akumi as the more reasonable partner. When she revealed even the slightest glimpse of her actual bloodlust, it would only serve to make Kira look even crazier…even though, in reality, he appeared to function as the steady center to their twisted family unit. They’d attempted to throw me off of my game using the same strategy, except that Mila had firsthand knowledge of their technique.

There was something to that. I couldn’t figure out exactly what that something might be, though.

Mila, for her part, didn’t visibly react to the Texan’s presence. She looked away from the Twins and focused on him, impaling him with the sheer force of her glare, but remained otherwise completely calm. And why wouldn’t she be calm? The Texan wasn’t a physical threat. No bodyguards loomed in his wake, crackling knuckles in anticipation of a fight. The man himself looked like he worked out, sure, but nothing about his demeanor hinted at any combat proficiency. My read on the man could be wrong, obviously, but I didn’t think that I was mistaken.

Mila, Akumi, and Sato all dealt with their problems by exuding a certain aura of control. When that failed, any of the three were capable of doling out extreme amounts of punishment to their enemies in an effort to forcibly make that positions known. I’d seen Mila go to work. If the Twins, either individually or together, were capable of producing even half as much chaos, then they would also qualify as the closest living equivalent to a weapon of mass destruction. In any job where security might be an issue, one of these three or some combination would be exactly the sort of thing I needed. Mila had saved me in Tangiers, after all, and again in Atlanta. She’d probably save my life from mortal peril several more times, before this whole fiasco was finished.

But that wasn’t how the Texan fought. Eschewing the customary trappings of power, he’d carved out a niche for himself as a trader of secrets. The knowledge contained within his head and whatever ledgers he kept for posterity was both less immediately dangerous than the Twins and Mila, but also exponentially more damaging. With a whisper into the right ear, he could probably kick-start a civil war in a criminal organization of his choosing. By making a phone call, he could make or break an assassination attempt. A wink, timed perfectly, could make up the difference between a successful theft and a disastrous trip to prison.

He fought with information. And, if this was to be any form of combat, that meant the burden of our defense fell squarely on my shoulders.

A deal,” I repeated, dragging out the word to give myself more time to think of to say. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?”

First things first,’ the Texan said. “You have something for me?”

Yes and no,” I said. The Texan raised an eyebrow and gestured for me to elaborate. “I have access to it and I can give you access, as well. It was too much information for me to carry around with me every day until we met.”

I’ll be honest,” he said, leaning over the table and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I’ve never really been all that good with computers. Got…people to take care of that for me, in a pinch. Now, I could check in with my contact, but you know what?”

He left the question dangling in the air long enough that I sighed and gave him the answer he was looking for. “No, I don’t. What?”

I believe you,” the Texan said. “You don’t seem like the kind to just lie about business.”

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.

About business,” the Texan said, stressing the operative word. “If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. But knowing who I can trust to play it straight is worth losing a little bit of stolen information.”

That’s awfully kind of you,” I said.

It’s more pragmatic than anything. If I spent all night wondering which of my informants is telling me the truth and which ones are just lying to my face, I’d hardly have time for anything else.” He examined the table in front of him, then snagged a stuffed mushroom from one of the many plates on display. “Show me what you’ve got and I’ll get my people to take a look at it.”

And then we’re good?”

If everything’s the way it ought to be,” the Texan said, smiling.

I found a scrap of paper and wrote down a series of web addresses. I’d only recently created the servers, just before discovering the Mouse’s true identity, and hadn’t bothered to connect them with my network proper. Instead of storing the wealth of information Devlin and I had stolen from the Sovereign, I’d simply indexed the whole thing and uploaded them onto a series of FTP servers. With those addresses, the Texan – or whoever his tech specialist happened to be – would be able to peruse the information contained within at their leisure without requiring me to be there in person.

The Texan accepted the paper with a slight nod, tucking it into his pocket without taking his eyes of the remaining stuffed mushrooms. “You don’t mind, do ya?”

I shook my head. While he gathered the savory treats onto a conveniently empty plate, I formulated a plan of attack. I didn’t know enough about the Texan – what he wanted, what his limits were, what he might be willing to part with and where his absolute limit was -but I wasn’t going to have a chance to study the man, apparently. I’d have to play it by ear.

Or that was my plan, at least. The Texan threw yet another wrench into the works when he finally lifted his eyes from the plate of food, taking in Akumi and Sato in a single offhanded glance. “You two don’t work outside of Japan,” he said. “’less I’m mistaken, you’re a long way away from home.”

The Twins shared a look. The brief moment of eye contact wouldn’t have been enough to convey any significant information for lesser mortals, but they seemed to have carried on a full conversation in the space of a single eye blink.

Kira was the one who spoke. “We have our own business to handle,” he said. I noticed that he’d reverted back to stiff, heavily accented English. Another act, apparently, designed to make people underestimate him.

Well, I can see that,” the Texan said. “But both of the Sato twins out of Japan at the same time? Must have been something pretty damn important. Only I haven’t heard about anything big, so…did someone finally take out old Goto?”

The question came out of the blue. I reacted without thinking, but my sharp intake of breath was nothing compared to the noises of dismay and shock that escaped the Twins’ mouths.

What do you know?” Akumi asked. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and one hand crept out of sight beneath the table.

The Texan’s eyes flickered down to her disappearing hand, clearly acknowledging her intention, before he calmly met her gaze. “Not enough, apparently.”

I didn’t know the Twins well enough to calm them, but Mila did. She drummed her fingers against the tabletop just loud enough to get Akumi’s attention, then subtly shook her head. For a long moment, Akumi teetered on the brink of ignoring Mila’s suggestion and I prepared myself to flip a table over and use the crowd as cover. But common sense prevailed and cooler heads won out. Akumi placed both of her hands on the table, palms flat against the surface, and nodded to her brother.

Mila spoke instead. “I can’t speak for these two,” she said, pointing at each of the Twins in turn, “but my ward and I have had just about enough of people trying to impress us by knowing more than they should.”

You think I’m trying to impress you? If I was trying to do that, I’d start by telling everybody here what your real name is, Emilia.” The Texan held up both hands in the universal sign of surrender before Mila could do much more than growl. “Not that I’m going to do that, of course. Ain’t my style and I don’t got anything to gain. We all got secrets, right?”

What’s your point, then?” I asked.

Exactly what I said when I came over to begin with,” the Texan said. “You reached out to me before you left Atlanta. Said you had some information I might be interested in and that I might have ownership of some rumors you could make use of. I’m just trying to make a deal, darling.”

More than almost anything, I wanted to sit down and pick apart the Texan’s brains. For someone so heavily invested in the value of information, he seemed to be a complete black hole as far as personal details went. What I saw was, essentially, all I knew about him. It was all anyone seemed to know about him. With a proper profile, I’d be able to plan around his wordplay, to pierce through his charm and civility down to the core of what made him tick.

Barring that, I wished that Devlin wasn’t drunk. He’d probably be able to do at a glance that kind of deep character study that would require hours for me to pull off.

With an effort, I pushed down those thoughts and focused on the moment. Wishing for better times wouldn’t actually make things better; that burden was on me, and me alone.

You’ve noticed things going wrong lately, haven’t you?” I asked. I tried to mimic the ‘just between friends’ tone that Devlin occasionally used to draw someone in, but I doubted the efficacy.

You want to be a little more vague, sweetheart?”

You know exactly what I’m talking about,” I said. “Don’t play dumb.”

He considered his next words very carefully. “Let’s say that I do,” he said finally. “What about it?”

There are things you don’t know,” I said. “Things you can barely even guess at. If you can give me the information I’m looking for, maybe I can see fit to share some of what I’ve learned over the last three years.”

A mere whim drove me to lie about the time spent working for the Lady. If the Texan had sources worth the pay, it was possible he’d be able to track where we’d been by comparing it against a list of massive disruptions in the last six months. No reason to give him anything for free, if I didn’t absolutely have to.

Things I don’t know?” The Texan stroked at some wispy hair on his chin. “I think you might be operating under something of a misunderstanding, darling.”

Oh?”

He pushed a plate out of his way so that he could lean all of his weight on the table. “Let’s see what me and my sources have put together, then. See if maybe I’m a little more in the know than you seem to think.”

I leaned back in my chair and gestured for him to continue. Mila mirrored me, while the Twins sat up straighter and paid strict attention to every word that came out of the Texan’s mouth.

Let’s see,” he said. “Where to begin? You said you’ve been ferreting out this information over the last couple of years, so…hmm. That would’ve been right around that job in Paris, wouldn’t it?”

I tried to keep my face expressionless, even as I internally marveled at the accuracy of the Texan’s first guess.

Yeah,” the Texan said. “That’d have to be it. Was kind of a slow season for big jobs. Some drug deals, a few mergers, but not the kind of thing that you look like you’d get involved in. Messy stuff.”

I didn’t say anything, but Akumi did. “I remember,” she said. “We traveled across all of Japan during that time, on orders from Goto. He did not tell us what we were after and, eventually, he said we had done enough.”

The Texan reached into his pocket. I couldn’t hear the click of the recording device he must have activated, but I knew the motions from personal experience. I assumed that everyone at the table would have noticed – he wasn’t being particularly subtle about it – but neither Mila nor the Twins seemed to care. If anything, Akumi seemed slightly more eager than before.

That fits with what I’ve heard,” the Texan said. “You two were involved in putting down the Inagawa uprising?”

Akumi gave Kira a searching look. After a few seconds, he sighed and nodded. “Among other things,” he said.

Interesting. Not important to this, but still interesting.” The Texan turned his attention back to me. “Where were we? Three years ago? So there was Paris, and then…Russia? No. Not Russia; I know all of the fellas involved in that catastrophe. Then…ah! There was that bank job in Limassol,wasn’t there? The one where nothing was stolen, but a whole mess of people ended up dead including high ranking members of the Bratva?”

He smiled at his own insight,while I tried to keep a stony expression on my face. It didn’t seem to stop him.

If that’s right,” the Texan said, “then it’s easy to figure out the highlights and draw out a pattern. You had the Limassol job, then all of that craziness in London, then Macao, and South America.”

What makes you think there’s a connection?” I risked asking.

What are the other options?” he countered. “High profile jobs, all of them, but no one stepping up to claim responsibility? No bragging, no strutting around? I don’t buy that.”

It’s possible,” I said. But it was a weak denial and everyone at the table knew it as soon as the words left my mouth.

The Texan shook his head, smiling to himself. “Either all of this is random and unconnected – and I’ve been doing this too long to start believing in coincidence – or there’s something else going on. Seeing as you hunted me down at my place of relaxation, I’m assuming there’s something else going on.”

He’d missed several key details, but that was to be expected. If the Texan was drawing conclusions from intelligence, collected by his various little birdies, then he couldn’t possibly know about the subtler things we’d accomplished. There was no record of Devlin’s time in prison, or of the Lady’s efforts to free him ahead of schedule. He should have known about Avis, but it was always possible that he’d never thought to examine the information he himself had passed on to us at the Green Light gala. He hadn’t drawn the right connections between us and Hill’s dramatic downfall.

Still, it was damned frightening how close his guesses came to the truth. With the appropriate context, he might have figured everything out all on his own. But he knew nothing about the Lady, so he was following the information down the wrong trail. That wouldn’t hold for long, though. I reminded myself that his affable demeanor wasn’t necessarily his true personality. Hell, even if he was as nice as he appeared to be, that didn’t mean he was stupid. In order to rise to a position worthy of a seat at the Green Light gala, the Texan almost had to possess a ruthless disposition.

So. I’ll show you mine,” the Texan said, “if you’ll show me yours. Obviously, you’re all tied up in this mess, one way or another. I’ve got informants going dark, long-time allies going at each other with knives in the dark, and blood enemies making protection deals. None of this makes sense, but you…I’m thinking you know exactly what’s going on.”

Feigning ignorance wasn’t a viable strategy anymore. The Texan wouldn’t have agreed to a meeting in the first place if he hadn’t had a fair amount of suspicion about my involvement in developing events. It was the only card I had to play, though, and I spent a few moments considering the best way in which to play it.

There are some people with skills I’m interested in,” I said carefully. “Computers, network security…that kind of thing. It’s not my strong suit.”

Mila shifted her weight a millimeter, but otherwise didn’t move. It was such a small movement that I didn’t think even the Twins would notice it and they certainly wouldn’t be able to read it. At least, that was what I hoped.

That’s easy enough,” the Texan said. “Depending on what kind of job you’re looking at, shouldn’t be too tough to rustle up a few specialists. What’d you have in mind?”

I shook my head. “I’m looking for more…uniquely talented individuals. Not the kind of people you just keep on a Rolodex. They might even be more difficult to find than normal, lately. You know, with everything going on in the underworld these days.”

The Texan’s face showed his confusion for a few heartbeats before he understood my meaning. A strange interplay of emotions flashed across his expression. I wasn’t able to catch all of them, but the ones I was able to register and understand resonated with interest, greed, bemusement, and…was that fear? What did he have to be afraid of?

You’re telling me that you know what’s going on? Who’s pulling these strings? What they’re after?” he asked.

I picked my words with excruciating caution. “I don’t know names,” I said. “But I can point you in the right direction of the people responsible for all the confusion. And trust me: you won’t find anyone else willing to do as much.”

That was true, from a certain perspective. I didn’t know the Lady’s name, or the names of the Magi. And, if I was willing to contort my viewpoint, I could believe that the Magi were ultimately capable for the tumult. If they hadn’t suborned Asher so many years ago, then Devlin wouldn’t have been betrayed at the conclusion of the Paris job. If he hadn’t been betrayed, the Lady wouldn’t have been able to recruit him – and, ultimately, the rest of us -to her cause. If we hadn’t been recruited, who knew how things would have played out?

Even if that didn’t quite hold water, I wasn’t overly bothered by the deception. If the timer ran out, and the Mouse gained access to my entire network, it wasn’t just my life on the line. I couldn’t imagine any scenario where Devlin wouldn’t cheerfully throw himself on any and every available sword, if he thought it would buy me another minute of freedom. Mila would do the same and Michel would be right behind her in line.

Virginia wouldn’t be content to let her baby granddaughter fall to the sorts of scoundrels the Mouse would send after me, but she didn’t fully understand the stakes. To her, the Magi were dangerous, sure, but they weren’t dangerous. Just as they’d very publicly assassinated Hill for his temerity, the Magi wouldn’t blink at killing an aging heiress. After her…I didn’t know how far the Magi would go to ensure their presence remained a secret.

No, my conscience wouldn’t trouble me if I lied to the Texan.

He gave me a searching look and I could almost hear the gears clicking in his mind, as he weighed what I was asking for versus what I had to offer. His lips parted for an instant, then closed, then opened again.

No,” the Texan said. “I got to say no.”

No what?”

No deal,” he clarified. “What you’re asking for…I might be able to pull it off, but it’d cost me. And I’m pretty sure I can get my hands on what you’re offering without having to make a trade for it.”

My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t help it. The Texan, a man who presumably made his living off of secrets, was turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn the larget secret of all?

He stood up abruptly, jostling the plates and glasses on the table in the process. “No hard feelings, darling,” he said. “I hope we can still do business again later. And I’ll tell you what: me and the chef got an arrangement. Drinks are on me tonight, in apology for your flight out here.”

I tried, and failed, to formulate a last minute sales pitch. The Texan melted into the crowd before a single word made it past my lips.

That didn’t work,” Mila said helpfully. “What’s our next option?”

The Texan had been our only option. Without information, there wasn’t any feasible way to track down the remaining members of the Community before my network’s last-ditch defenses fell and the Mouse was free to rampage through my network. If he’d decided, by sheer dumb luck or obstinance or whatever reason motivated him, to remove himself from the field, that left us standing out there without cover or protection.

Everyone at the table – Mila, Akumi, and Sato – watched me expectantly. I shook my head, refusing to make eye contact with them.

I…I don’t know.”

Chapter 71

A rush of contradicting ideas popped into my head all at once, urging me to run, to hide, to play it cool, to flip a table as a distraction…all that and more, instantly crystal clear in my mind’s eye. The ultimate effect of those conflicting instincts was that I sat at the table, frozen in place and fixated by the Texan’s unflinching stare.

The black-haired woman was still talking to him – she must not have noticed the expression of dawning realization as it spread across his face – and he nodded absently to whatever it was that she was saying. She’d turned slightly, angling in such a way that I could no longer read her lips. The Texan didn’t blink or move a single muscle.

Don’t turn around,” I said, just as Mila started to do exactly that. “Just…don’t move.”

I’m going to have to move,” Mila said. But she stayed still. “What’s wrong?”

I started to voice my concerns, but stopped as a thought occurred to me. The Magi wasn’t a common name for the criminal cabal we were targeting. Most denizens of the underworld, in fact, didn’t even know they existed. Unless the black-haired woman and the Texan had, through entirely different means, landed on the exact same moniker that the Lady and my team used, there had to be another reason for her use of the term.

She couldn’t have gotten it from us, though. There were enough people talking in the underground speakeasy that no one could possibly have overheard the few seconds of conversation I’d shared with Mila on the topic. Besides, she hadn’t been anywhere near us when I’d spoken the name out loud to begin with. Barring some supernatural power, then, there wasn’t any way for her to…

My train of thought slowed and I took the opportunity to walk back through every interaction I’d had since entering the speakeasy. We’d been ushered straight to the table, owing to Mila’s mysterious connection to the proprietors. Mila had ordered food from a special menu, so there wasn’t any way that someone could have known in advance which plates to bug. But I had bumped into the black-haired lady once. She’d displayed a considerable amount of grace and dexterity for someone caught off guard. Far more dexterity, in fact, than I would have expected from anyone except for Devlin on his very best days.

As subtly as possible, I patted myself down. There was nothing in my front pants pockets that didn’t belong, and nothing in my back pockets, either. In the outside jacket pocket, though, I felt an oblong shape that I couldn’t remember picking up before stepping out for the evening.

I didn’t need to remove the listening device to know what it was. Glancing over to where the Texan and the black-haired woman conferenced, I saw that he’d finally allowed her to divert his attention. Without making a sound, I winked broadly at Mila and then tapped my ear. When she opened her mouth to respond, I frantically waved her back into silence. I touched my ear a second time, then my mouth, and shook my head.

The light of understanding came on behind her eyes. Her body went completely motionless for an instant, like a statue, and the sense of impending violence sharpened around her.

What do you want to do?” Mila asked.

Nothing, right now,” I answered.

You’re sure?”

I wasn’t. Our conversation earlier echoed in my thoughts, alongside the fragmented images of a dozen different escape plans. Was I waiting because it was the prudent, intelligent thing to do? Or was I just too frightened to commit to a single plan, for fear that it might backfire on me later?

Was there a functional difference at the moment?

Until we know more about the…situation,” I said, “it’s probably better to keep our options open.”

Mila nodded slowly, but her aura didn’t lose any of its intensity. “It’s your call, for the moment.”

Translation: if she felt that we were in serious danger, Mila wasn’t going to obey any order to stay her hand or refrain from violence. I didn’t have any idea how many of the speakeasy’s occupants could be brawlers or bodyguards like her and I didn’t want to be anywhere Mila if she decided to cut loose. At the same time, I could at least breathe a little easier knowing that her choices weren’t entirely dependent on my decisions. No matter what happened, I could at least be secure in the knowledge that Mila was operating as an incredibly violent safety net.

That didn’t alleviate any of the other pressures on my mind, though. The Texan was rapidly collecting enough information to start connecting dots. Worse, he’d started gathering the same knowledge I’d planned to use as a bargaining chip all on his own. He knew the name of the Magi, from my own lips, even if he didn’t necessarily have the appropriate context to know exactly what the Magi were. And, if he didn’t already know about the various jobs we’d been pulling across the globe, he knew that Mila and I felt personally responsible for the fiasco in Macao. It wouldn’t take him much time, if any at all, to take the little logical hop and figure things out.

I needed to get out of the speakeasy. That much was obvious. I just wasn’t sure if beating a hasty retreat would be worth the hassle, or if that move would tip my hand too much. For the moment, at least, the Texan and his informant – because, who else could the black-haired woman possibly be? – only knew that I’d seen him in the bar. Running away could reveal my awareness of her little trick with the listening device. Staying, however, ran the risk of even more valuable information slipping into his grasp.

The Twins returned from wherever they’d gone. Akumi sat next to me this time. She’d removed the suit jacket and folded it neatly over one arm. I caught the scent of cigarette smoke from her shirt as she settled into place and reached out for the nearest bottle on the table.

Akumi does not like to argue in front of strangers,” Kira said, unprompted.

What did you two have to argue about?” Mila asked.

Whether or not the two of you are trustworthy,” Akumi said. She elected to skip the shot glass entirely, throwing back a mouthful of liquor straight from the bottle.

You know my record,” Mila said. “You know how I play things.”

What my sister means,” Kira interjected, “is that she is not sure of your loyalties. We are not sure.”

Akumi downed another shot and then picked up where her brother left off. “You will not break a contract. You will protect your ward, no matter what.”

This is admirable,” Kira said.

For the first time since I’d met them, Akumi spoke over her brother, as though he hadn’t opened his mouth to say anything at all. “But you do not have principles of your own,” she said, boring into Mila with nothing more than a stare like a laser. “If you had accepted the contract of whoever killed Goto, we have no doubt that you would be very honorable as you tried to kill us.”

I felt my jaw drop open and was powerless to close my gaping mouth. Without blinking, Akumi had launched a devastating attack against Mila’s morals while asking Mila for help…or had she? In the world of for-hire bodyguards and mercenaries, was it a bad thing to have a shifting sense of right and wrong? Or had Akumi given Mila a compliment in some ass-backwards, arcanely convoluted way by praising her commitment to the job?

Whatever reaction I’d expected Mila to have, I would have been wrong. She moved the plate in front of her to one side and casually rested both of her elbows on the tabletop, meeting Akumi’s glare with one of her own.

Try?” Mila asked.

You have talent,” Akumi said, “but my brother and I are not like the people you used to hunt.”

I never said you were,” Mila replied. “But if the three of us ever got into it, we all know that I’d take at least one of you with me. Maybe both.”

You would die, as well.”

Maybe. Probably, in fact. Are you sure I wouldn’t pay that price to keep my people safe?”

Tension flared between Akumi and Mila like an exposed live wire, crackling with naked heat. I could almost swear that everyone in the speakeasy shifted away from our table without consciously realizing they were doing. I certainly started to wish I were somewhere, other than seated at the same table with three trained killers, at least two of which could barely contain their bloodlust at an otherwise civil meeting.

Mila,” I said, in a warning tone.

Akumi,” Mila said, focusing her attention on the Japanese woman, “we aren’t enemies. I happen to like you and your brother. You’re right; I’ll protect my clients right up until the end of the contract, even if that means going against people I happen to respect. But I don’t have to agree with them to do it.”

We do not – did not – always agree with what Goto-san did,” Kira said. He didn’t appear at all bothered by the oppressive atmosphere brewing between his sister and Mila.

What is your point?” Akumi asked.

I’m saying that, so that you’ll believe me when I say this: I don’t work for the people who you’re running from. Neither do the people under my protection.”

So,” Akumi said, “you are offering…what, exactly? Help?”

As much as I can give without compromising my people,” Mila said.

And beyond that?”

Mila shrugged. “Beyond that, we’ll see. I don’t want to talk specifics until all of us know more about what’s going on. But, for right now, it’d be safe to assume that we’re on the same general side of things.”

Akumi digested that information silently while she picked over the cold remains of her food. It was a good three minutes before she spoke again. By that time, the Texan and the black-haired woman had left their nook. Neither was anywhere that I could see but, at the same time, I couldn’t begin to imagine what sort of tunnels ran underneath the Mockingbird complex.

You know more than you are telling us,” Akumi said finally.

Mila nodded. “So do you. I don’t buy for a second that Goto sent you the investigate without telling you as much information about the kind of business he was in before you got on the plane. Don’t forget; I’ve worked for him more than a few times.”

Somehow, that tidbit of information didn’t even surprise me. Of course, Mila had done work for the Yakuza in the past. Why wouldn’t that be the case?

There are things we cannot discuss with outsiders,” Kira said. “Not even with…friends or exterior colleagues.”

And I’ve got confidentiality to worry about,” Mila said. “It’s fine. I get it. I’m just saying, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re being open and honest.”

What, then?” Akumi asked. “My brother and I are left in the same position? You owe us a favor.”

Mila tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “And it’s a favor I intend on repaying. But you have to figure out how you want to go about calling it in, and you need to know exactly what you want to ask for.”

Akumi’s expression darkened, while Kira nodded thoughtfully to himself.

I’d already interjected my thoughts into the conversation once before. Any chance of the Twins ignoring me had been thrown away. I didn’t see any reason why I should keep quiet now, then. It couldn’t make things worse, after all.

Everyone needs to take some time to think about things,” I said, garnering attention from everyone else at the table. I suspected that the black-haired woman was also listening attentively to every word I spoke. “You two don’t want to reveal too much right now and Mila doesn’t seem willing to put all of her figurative cards on the table right now. Cool. How about we separate, give this the proper amount of consideration, and meet again later on to see what we can do for you?”

Akumi shot her brother a look and it was one I recognized. During my childhood, it was the same look people had worn when my aging grandmother spoke up in the middle of a business deal and rammed her terms down the opposing business’ metaphorical throats. That look said: is she actually the one in charge?

I wasn’t, of course, but I thought a reminder of Mila’s current employment status might provide her with a little more cover. She could go rogue whenever she wanted to or, whenever the terms outlined in her original contract with the Lady dictated – but the Twins didn’t know that. If it turned out that we had to cut them loose, at least we could make sure that their relationship with Mila would continue with as small of an interruption as possible.

Mila shifted minutely in her seat, but didn’t say anything to contradict me. After a few moments of thought, Akumi relaxed. She didn’t slump down into her chair or smile or anything like that. The aura of tangible, imminent violence dimmed back down to a lower level of intensity and she allowed herself to release some of the tension in her arms and shoulders. Kira, who hadn’t visibly demonstrated anything resembling his sister’s hair trigger, let out a long, slow breath.

Your ward has a point,” Akumi said. “There is no reason that we cannot come to an…agreement.”

I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to work things out,” Mila said. “We’ve done it before and this isn’t any different.”

Kira’s eyebrow shot up. “Goto is either dead or dethroned. The underworld in Japan is in a state of disarray like nothing we have ever seen. And you are inviting your charges to take part in discussions about things they should know nothing about.”

Your point?” Mila asked.

Kira shook his head. “I would say that this is very different from anything we have done before.”

I snorted before I could help myself. When Kira turned his gaze to me, I shrugged. “You don’t even know,” I said.

The expression on his voice flickered momentarily from calm consideration, sharpening into an instant of shrewd analysis. The moment passed a heartbeat later but, in that single instant, I was reminded that both of the Twins were brawlers of the highest caliber. Even Mila had acknowledged their abilities, in a roundabout way. Just because Kira didn’t radiate danger like his sister, that didn’t mean I should take him lightly.

Sorry,” I said quickly. “Uh…stress. I’m under a lot of stress.”

You would have to be,” Akumi said, “or else you would not be paying Mila’s ridiculous price.”

Kira poured the remainder of his sake bottle into one of the cups, downed it, and stood up from the table. “We will be in touch,” he said to Mila.

You’re staying in town?” Mila asked.

There is nowhere else for us to go,” Akumi said. She eyed the lone remaining bottle of liquor on the table for a long while before finally getting to her feet. “At the moment, you are our only lead. If you will not help us, then…we will have to find another way to acquire the information we seek.”

We had plans to stay in the area for at least three days, maybe more depending on what we managed to get out of the Texan and how we endeavored to use that information. As long as the Twins didn’t travel too far, we’d still be able to point them in the Magi’s direction without getting directly involved. Two people with Mila’s skillset and nothing to lose could do a staggering amount of damage to any operation that fell in their sight line.

It wasn’t a perfect solution to this newest wrinkle, but it did have the marks of a potential solution. All we had to deal with now was –

The Texan rapped his knuckles twice against the table top. Each impact sounded like a miniature rifle shot, painfully audible even with the general dim of the speakeasy providing background white noise.

No need to wait for all that,” the Texan said. “You’re all already here, after all. Why not talk turkey while the opportunity’s sitting in front of us?”

I froze up again for a few precious seconds. I recovered quickly, but I didn’t doubt that those few moments of hesitation had provided the Texan with a glimpse into my psyche. I didn’t want to know what he’d do with that.

Excusing what this fine lady already owes me,” the Texan said, gesturing at me, “it seems like we all find ourselves in a strange situation.”

And how is that?” I asked. I was surprised to hear how steady my voice was.

You both want information,” he said. “And I’m feeling like you both might want the same kind of information. But, if what I’m guessing at is right, it’s a seller’s market right now. Nobody’s looking for me, but a lot of people are looking for the group of you.”

What’s your point?” Mila asked.

The Texan leaned back in his chair and spread his arms wide. “You all came here, looking to make a deal for your own personal reasons,” he said. “So. Why don’t we make a damn deal, then?”

Chapter 70

Over several plates filled with a variety of fried foods, as well as no fewer than two bottles of alcohol split between the four of us, Akira and Kira explained their situation.

For them, it had started in the wake of the team’s success in Macao. Their Yakuza boss, a man named Goto, had invested huge sums of money into a joint venture with the Triads in an unprecedented demonstration of unity and solidarity. When that deal had been inked, the underworld hadn’t yet been been forced to adapt to the ripples caused by Hill’s dramatic death. If news from England had made its way to Tokyo quickly enough, perhaps Goto would have found a way to extricate his money from the joint fund but, unfortunately, we’d moved too quickly.

Instead of fury at the loss of funds, Goto had apparently been motivated by curiosity. So he’d tasked his two top enforcers to hunt down the perpetrators of the crime and to bring them back to face him. Whether that reckoning would have ended in painful death or unorthodox job offer wasn’t made clear to the Twins but, at the same time, details weren’t generally things they concerned themselves with.

If that had been all, it was possible that they would never have reached out to Mila. Akumi and Kira had shared a suspicion that Mila had been tasked to protect the thieves while they worked, but it had never occurred to them that she might be involved in a more personal – which was to say, non-mandated – manner. The actions of her clients did not reflect on Mila herself, according to whatever strange code these people followed, and the Twins had mutually decided to leave Mila out of things unless absolutely necessary.

It had taken less than a month of concentrated searching before it became absolutely necessary to reach out to Mila.

What happened?” Mila asked.

I was content to let her do the talking. The Twins didn’t know how involved I was in the affair and, through telepathy, Mila had reached the same conclusion as me: what they didn’t know about the team wouldn’t hurt them. Besides, while their loyalties didn’t make them direct enemies or adversaries, it did mean that they weren’t on our side either.

At first, we thought that the Triads themselves might have stolen the money,” Akumi said. She poured herself a shot of bourbon, then downed it in a single fluid motion. She didn’t even grimace at the taste of the liquor. “So we went to the source, asked some questions about the people who should have known something.”

But we could not find anyone with information to share,” Kira added. He toyed with one of the larger rings around his left thumb idly. “It was if the money disappeared into thin air.”

But that cannot happen,” Akumi said. “It must have gone somewhere.”

I wondered if their tendency to speak in turn was an affectation, designed to throw people off of their guard, or if it was a natural thing that all twins did. Either way, it was unnerving as hell and forced me to keep shifting my attention from one side of the table to the other with every sentence.

I don’t do the financial stuff,” Mila said, “but even I know that you’re supposed to follow the money. That’s step one, isn’t it?”

Kira nodded. “And we tried to do that. But, when we looked deeper into the fund, we discovered a large amount of money that Goto-san knew nothing about it.”

Akumi blew air from her nostrils and snatched a fry off of Mila’s plate, earning a warning glare from Mila herself. “Or it is money that Goto only claims to know nothing about it. He has kept secrets from us before.”

Kira lifted his eyebrow. “Why would he keep that secret and then send us to investigate?”

He has his own reasons for doing what he does,” Akumi said, shrugging. “They do not always make sense.”

Kira considered that thought for a few seconds and then nodded begrudgingly. “I suppose.” He turned back to Mila. “Apologies; we have disagreed over this very topic many times since things…went wrong.”

Mila accepted the apology with a curt wave. “It’s fine. You were following the money and then what?”

The additional funds raised questions about who would benefit from cooperation between Goto’s faction and the Triads,” Akumi said. “Perhaps, we thought, a third party would have profited even more if that cooperation failed. But the deeper we searched, the more difficult it became to track the finances.”

If she had not gone to school for business,” Kira said, “I do not think we would have made it as far as we did to begin with.”

Twin spots of color bloomed in Akumi’s cheeks. She nodded politely to her brother, acknowledging the compliment without appearing too cocky about it, and gave Mila’s plate a long look. After a second, Mila sighed and gestured for Akumi to filch another fry.

Akumi took a bite of the fry, chewing thoughtfully on it for several seconds, before she continued her earlier thought. “I was able to to find a bank in Gibraltar, listed under an organization I have never heard of, before everything went wrong.”

I’d been listening to the story with rapt attention already. I knew about the intrigues and shifting alliances of the underworld, but only in an indirect, detached sort of way. Devlin and I had been a team; when necessary, we’d worked with old friends, or contracted out on a case-by-case basis. But the larger organizations – the Mafia, primarily, or any of their international counterparts – hadn’t been a factor. We worked our jobs, not making any additional trouble when we didn’t have to and paying a tax when disruption was unavoidable; those organizations, in turn, tolerated the existence of a thriving hub for short-term criminal employment within their territories. The arrangement had been in place since long before I became a hacker. If anyone knew when it had started, they weren’t talking.

Listening to a member of the Yakuza casually explain how her organization was structured, who she took orders from, and the tension between Japanese and Chinese gangs was enlightening, in a way that went beyond simple memorization. I could see the discipline in Kira’s body, the way he carried himself. Even Akumi, whose professional attire only served to contrast her more…relaxed demeanor, possessed an undeniable aura of authority. These weren’t people who dipped a toe into the underworld on occasion, either for protection or to fill a hole in an otherwise complete team; Akumi and Kira were lifelong criminals, who had bought wholesale into the lifestyle and who had chosen to use their skills for a single employer.

Compared to them, my criminal activities were essentially just a hobby. It was their career. It was their life.

Still, while I’d already been invested in their story, my interest really spiked when Akumi mentioned the bank account in Gibraltar that she’d managed to unearth. When we’d received our tip about the Magi’s involvement in the Macao business, I’d dedicated several days in a focused effort to unearth more information about where the money had come from. With all of the funds tied up in so many diverse business interests, and without any outside knowledge about what other parties might also be investing, I’d reached a dead end fairly quickly and hadn’t been able to get any farther than two or three steps into the money trail.

I tapped Mila’s ankle, where the table provided some concealment from the Twins. She didn’t betray anything as she stretched, snatched a fry away from Akumi’s questing fingers, and causally steered the conversation towards the area I was interested in.

Gibraltar? How’d you do that?”

Akumi shrugged modestly. “We have dealt with internal theft in the past,” she said, “and we thought it would be useful to become better able to spot false trails in the future.”

Kira sipped from his sake cup. He didn’t make any great noise or interrupt his sister with any gesture, but she stopped and deferred to him. “You,” he said, “learned how to to spot false trails. That was never one of my talents.”

If it is something that I can do, then it is something that we can do. There is much that you can do that I cannot, after all.”

Even so.”

Mila cleared her throat, loudly and deliberately. “You’re both very intelligent and skilled,” she said. “But, back to the problem you need help with?”

The Twins exchanged a look, probably communicating entire volumes worth of subtext in a single instant of eye contact. Kira took another sip of sake and bowed his head slightly in deference for his sister to continue.

If there was another trail to follow,” Akumi said, “I could not find it. It seemed as though the money simply appeared in Gibraltar and was sent, by means I could not discover, into the joint account. When I called Goto to report my findings, he was…no longer there.”

What do you mean by that?” Mila asked.

We do not know,” Kira said. “That is the problem. Goto-san was an unconventional man, in many ways, but he has never been the type to send us to chase down shadows.”

And he would never leave us without support or further instructions, if he thought that was necessary,” Akumi finished. She narrowed her eyes at me over her shot glass, before downing another mouthful of bourbon.

We all sat in silence for a few moments, digesting that information. I expected Mila to point out the obvious verbal slip in Kira’s story; when she didn’t, I realized that I was going to have to speak up and enter the conversation.

Was,” I said, directing the word to Kira. “You said was. Why?”

Kira fidgeted slightly in his seat. From most people, I would have considered the movement just the involuntary action of someone settling into a more comfortable position. But I’d been around Mila long enough to draw some conclusions about people in her line of work.

Rule number one: they didn’t get uncomfortable, in the way that Devlin or I might. If they moved at all, it was as significant a tell as if buckets of sweat had started pouring down their faces.

You can trust her,” Mila said. “Trust me, she won’t go repeating anything you say here.”

And how can you be so sure of that?” Akumi asked. “It would not be the first time that your judgment has been…in error.”

Mila visibly flinched and I guessed that she was referring to Aiden.

I have nothing to gain from spreading stories,” I said, hopefully saving Mila from confronting an ugly memory by stepping in. “Besides. If the two of you are in trouble, I’d have to be insane to bring that kind of attention down on me.”

Which was true. I was, after all, clearly quite insane.

Akumi and Kira conferred with each other in another of those silent, meaningful glances. Kira tilted his head finally and gave his sister a small nod. She sighed, reached out for the emptied bottle of bourbon, and muttered something that sounded vile under her breath.

We have contacts in Tokyo,” she said. “People that do not work for Goto or for any of his contemporaries, but who are still aware of the movement of things, who follow gokudo.”

I mentally deconstructed that sentence and put it back together in a way to made sense to me. “You mean the underworld?”

Akumi gave me a blank look.

Places like this,” I said, gesturing at our surroundings. “Where people who do what you do come to talk, to share information.”

Yes,” Akumi said, “like that.”

When we could not contact Goto,” Kira said, “we reached out to those contacts and asked them if they knew anything about what was going on.”

And?” Mila asked. “What’d they say?”

They told us not to come home,” Akumi said. “There were dangerous people asking questions about where we’d gone and where we’d be headed next.”

She raised a hand to gesture for a waiter, but the black-haired server was already nearby with a fresh bottle of bourbon. She dropped it off on the table and departed without saying a word. Idly, I wondered if tipping was appropriate in the underworld, or if that would be seen as a foolish display of wealth.

But you’re dangerous people,” I said. “And Goto runs his corner of Tokyo, if I’m not misunderstanding you. He isn’t running interference for you?”

I caught the sports metaphor as soon as it passed my lips and silently cursed Devlin for introducing it into my lexicon. Akumi either knew the metaphor or she sussed out its meaning on her own, because she only paused for a brief instant before answering my question.

If what we are hearing is correct,” she said, “he is not running anything, at the moment. One of the many factions struggling for control of his organization forced him into a…permanent retirement.”

Excuse us,” Kira said suddenly. He stood up from the table, polite to a fault. “Before we can discuss this any further, my sister and I must discuss matters.”

It was a strange point in the conversation for him to assert that desire, but I needed time to digest what they’d already told us. Akumi stood up, joining Kira, and the two of them stepped over to an empty table only a few yards away.

I sat back in my chair, stunned into silence, while my brain struggled to create a cohesive picture from the scattered dots of Akumi and Kira’s story. Their boss, in an attempt to recoup losses that we’d caused, had suddenly fallen victim to an internal uprising. Something must have happened to unsettle the balance of power and I strongly doubted that our theft had been the final catalyst.

It was more likely that the Twins’ search had prompted some third party to take action, in order to protect their secrecy. I’d known, via the Lady, that the Magi were involved in Macao’s gambling circles; Akumi and Kira hadn’t been privy to the same knowledge. By poking around in the finances and successfully tracing their source as far back as Gibraltar, Akumi must have put the Magi on alert. With the actions of my team as a constant needling presence in their side, they must have overreacted and decided to oust a crime lord to cancel any and all questions about their activities.

But they hadn’t severed every potential tie, yet. Akumi and Kira were still roaming free. They knew more about the Magi’s connection to the stolen money than anyone else, except for my team and the Lady herself. And, if the Magi couldn’t find us, they’d have to settle for closing every opening they could.

I didn’t feel bad about Goto’s presumed death, which didn’t bother me as much as it probably should have. He’d been a Yakuza boss and no small amount of blood would have been on his hands. Of course, we had set the dominos in motion with our own actions, but the life of a crime boss wasn’t without risks. Eventually, the rival faction would have made a move, even without our impetus, and he would have either killed or been killed by his subordinates. That was the price of the life he’d chosen to live.

What upset me was the implication of his death. For six months, my team had devoted themselves to sole purpose of destabilizing the Magi’s power base enough that they would make a mistake and offer us an opportunity. We only needed their real names for the Lady. After that, it would be on her shoulders to deal with them in whatever manner she saw fit. But, in our single-minded mission, we’d played an integral part in the dissolution of old alliances and the formation of new, more volatile collaborations. What we did was only easy for us, because we didn’t have to stay in the area after we’d finished the job.

Goto had died because we’d robbed the Macao casinos. Hill had been killed because we’d successfully trussed him up with his own crimes and inadvertently handed him over to a dirty Interpol agent. Fatima had slit Mamoud’s throat, because we’d provided him with an opportunity to make a play for power. All of those individuals had been criminals, seeking greater and greater authority over their local underworlds, financed by the Magi; but we were also criminals. None of us were innocent. Was I really in a position to judge someone else for the lengths they’d go to, when I’d been perfectly content sitting on the sidelines while Devlin, Mila, and Michel risked their lives every time I planned out a job and sent them into the fray?

They pissed off the Magi, didn’t they?” Mila asked.

Her question jolted me out of my thoughts. “I can’t think of any other possibility.”

What do you want to do about them?”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

Mila gave me a flat look. “You and Devlin,” she said, “have a tendency to collect people like lost pets. If Akumi and Kira don’t have anywhere to go back to, that means they’re perfectly positioned for the two of you to rescue them, or whatever it is that you do.”

It was a possibility I hadn’t really considered before. Now that Mila had brought it up, though, I found it difficult to find a flaw in that idea. Akumi and Kira were obviously talented at their jobs. With two more skilled fighters, the team could tackle the types of threats we’d avoided thus far. Three people running interference against any physical threat would also mean that each of us non-fighters could enjoy the benefits of having a protector each. Of course, that might occasionally require that the Twins split up, but it was still something to think about.

I opened my mouth and turned to Mila, to say…something. The thought never had a chance to crystallize into a sentence. As I swiveled to face her, I happened to look over her shoulder. Past the groups of line-dancing Texans, past the tables filled with rowdy drinkers and quiet conversations in equal measure, I saw the black-haired waitress in a far corner of the room. She was standing in a shadowy corner, concealed from most of the people in the bar, except for someone seated in my exact position and looking at that exact moment.

She wasn’t alone. The waitress seemed to be speaking in an intense whisper to someone I couldn’t quite make out from so far away. As I watched, she gestured in the general direction of our table. She fell silent, waited as someone else spoke to her, and then continued. The gestures in our direction grew more animated.

I would have simply watched the exchange with mounting curiosity, if the waitress’ partner hadn’t chosen that moment to step out of the shadows. Instantly, I recognized the string tie and the wide-brimmed cowboy hat. The waitress’ partner didn’t walk, so much as he loped, in wide steps.

The Texan dug something out of his pocket and held it out to the waitress. She accepted the gift, then stepped on her tip toes to kiss him on the cheek. He returned the favor.

Mila,” I said, trying to inject as much warning into my voice as possible. It must have worked, because she narrowed her eyes and tensed noticeably.

Yes?”

I think we’ve got a problem,” I said.

The Texan continued his conversation with the black-haired waitress while I watched, desperately wishing I’d remembered to keep up with my lip reading. As it was, I didn’t need the skill to pick out several key words.

Yakuza was one. Fugitives was another. Magi was the third.

The Texan looked up from the conversation, vision piercing straight through the crowd, and made eye contact with me.

Scratch that,” I said. “We definitely have a problem.”

Chapter 69

Moral support,” I repeated. I swept my vision across the nearest groups of people and, spotting nothing immediately out of the ordinary, tried to shrink slightly into my chair and out of sight. “You told the Twins where you were going to be? Where we were going to be?

They called me and needed to know where I was going to be for the next couple of days. I figured they just wanted to use their marker to get me to help them on a job.”

But?”

But then they asked about China and the Triad’s money. Kira almost seemed willing to let it go, when I tried to duck out of answering, but Akumi…she must have realized I was keeping something to myself. She’s the one who called for a meeting.”

I tried, with only a moderate amount of success, to quell the anxiety building inside my head. The Twins – Akumi and Kira, apparently – had attended the Green Light gala, presumably in their professional capacity. I hadn’t physically been inside the bar when Mila had pulled them aside and we hadn’t crossed paths with them during the remainder of our time in London. There was every possibility that they’d never gotten close enough or interested enough to identify me; at the same time, there was also a fair chance that they’d noticed me in their peripheral vision and were on the verge of connecting the dots.

I’ve got to get out of here,” I said, pushing away from the table and pointing myself in the direction of the door. I made it two steps before I collided with the black-haired server from earlier. I went down in a tangle of my own body parts, while she managed to regain her balance at the last instant. She put the tray of food down on a nearby table before reaching down to help me back to my feet.

Sorry about that,” she said. There was only the lightest touch of a Texas drawl to her words. She sounded like someone who’d learned to speak like that, instead of picking it up naturally. Her hair, jet-black and voluminous, spilled out of her makeshift head covering as she hauled me back into a standing position. “Should’ve watched where I was going.”

No, it’s fine. I’m the one who stood up, I’m the one who should be making sure someone isn’t standing right behind me when I do it.”

I can get you a drink,” the server said, “on the house. We pride ourselves on hospitality here. And making sure that the guests are treated right, of course.”

I started to object, but Mila spoke over me too quickly. “We’ll have two,” she said.

My eyebrow climbed and Mila pinched the loose skin around my elbow with far more strength than any one person should have in only two fingers. Wisely, I amended my decision and returned to my seat; only then did Mila release me.

I reminded myself that, while Mila technically worked according to the terms laid out in her contract with the Lady, she was free to interpret those rules in whatever way she saw fit. Or, depending on how things had changed after her decision to fully join us in our crusade, she could simply ignore the contract entirely and do whatever she wanted. I certainly wouldn’t be able to stop her.

I rubbed at the painful spot of her Vulcan Death Grip and shot her a venomous glare. Mila met the glare with an expression of calm, placid neutrality.

The waitress tried to look like she wasn’t watching the strange dynamic play out. “Uh…” The waitress cleared her throat quite deliberately. “You wanted two drinks? What of?”

Well, Mila,” I said, “you’re the one who’s got a better idea of what we’re going to do. What drinks do you think we should get?”

While my glare hadn’t done anything to ruffle her feathers, something about my tone or word choice struck home. Mila winced, almost imperceptibly, before she turned her attention to the waitress. “Bourbon,” she said, “sake, and four sake cups. Leave the bottles, too.” She did a strange thing with her fingers while she spoke.

Again, the waitress didn’t write down any of our order. She lingered at the table for a few more seconds, though, and only moved to retrieve the drinks when I gave her a pointed look. It worked better on her than on Mila, so at least I could take comfort in the knowledge that my glares weren’t losing potency.

What was that about?” I asked, when the server was finally out of earshot.

I asked for privacy,” Mila said. “Some people here might recognize me, so I told the server to make sure that no one comes over. Except for Akumi and Sato, obviously.”

That explained the strange finger movements, but I hadn’t actually been asking about that. “I mean, why did you pinch me in the first place? If you need to talk to them, then fine; but that doesn’t mean I need to be here. Remember how I’m trying really hard to make sure that no one can figure out that Sarah Ford has anything to do with the underworld?”

They never saw you, Sarah,” Mila said. “Even if they did, they pay absolutely no attention to American socialites or politics, so they wouldn’t recognize you. And even if they did recognize you, we’re meeting to discuss terms in an honorable fashion.”

Meaning?”

Meaning that neither of the Twins would ever do anything that might dishonor me, themselves, or their boss. Nothing. If they make their organization look bad by breaching that code, it’d be a black mark on the organization itself, not just on the Twins.”

But nothing’s stopping them from selling my name to the next person who asks, as long as they do it after you’ve agreed to…whatever these terms are?”

Mila hesitated for an instant before answering. “If you don’t give them any reason to think of you as anything other than a repeat client, they won’t have any reason to do that. I’m the one they’re here for.”

And you just brought me for ‘moral support.’ Right.” If Mila had needed a companion for this meeting, she could’ve waited until Devlin or Michel sobered up. We had a full three days in town before we could try to cut a deal with the Texan; surely, she could have met the Twins another night and still maintained the value of her word with the Twins.

I need to be able to show that I am actually working a job,” Mila said. “When I got my information from them in London, I specifically outlined that I wouldn’t break a contract to fulfill my obligation, and they agreed. As soon as they see you here, they’ll have to accept that I’m too busy at the moment to help them with their search until I complete my current contract.”

And then what?”

And then we find a way to pay their boss back?” Mila suggested. “Or we make some sort of alternate arrangement? They’re business people, doing business things. If we can make amends for stealing from them – especially because we didn’t actually mean to – they’ll probably be willing to let things slide.”

Even though I was still beginning to wrap my head around the byzantine rules and restrictions of the underworld, such as they existed in person instead of the digital space, I’d been around business people enough to understand their mindsets. If the Twins’ boss in the Yakuza had lost money due to our actions, and if it were ever revealed that we’d been the ones responsible for said loss, it would take more than an equivalent repayment to settle the debt. Other organizations would be circling in the water, eager to pounce at any supposed sign of weakness. In order to keep those predators at bay, an example would need to be made.

I had no desire to become that example.

Mila must have read the increasing tension in the way my muscles shifted or a slight shift in my body weight or some other arcane method of divination, because she lowered her voice and spoke to me in a soft whisper. “Either they don’t know anything or they’ve only got guesses. If they were here to actually do something, they wouldn’t have agreed to talk. Any trouble they send our way, they’ll be sending at me, and me alone. You’ll be fine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not this again.”

Not what again?”

Devlin would have said something clever, but gentle, in rebuke to that sentiment. My settings only went to ‘rebuke,’ though. “You’re not doing this again. You aren’t just our bodyguard, Mila; you’re a part of the team, too. Your problems are our problems. Isn’t that what you told me after the Sovereign?”

Mila was quiet for a moment or two before answering. “This isn’t the same thing.”

Isn’t it? We already agreed to help you deal with the Twins, whenever they came calling. This is a known factor. You’re not going to throw yourself on that grenade.”

I am your bodyguard,” Mila said, “even if I’m part of the team, too. If someone’s got to take the hit, that’s my job.”

It’s not your job to sacrifice yourself for no reason,” I countered. “You said it earlier: maybe there’s some other way we can get the Twins and their boss to leave us alone. But if there isn’t, then we’ll find a way to deal with that together.”

This was a long-running argument, though Devlin was normally the one speaking against Mila’s suicidal tendencies. Apparently, they needed to talk at greater length again. I probably wasn’t saying the right things.

All I know,” I continued, “is that you only made a deal with the Twins in the first place was to get information we all needed,” I said. “Even if we didn’t necessarily know we needed it at that point. If you’re staying, then I’m staying. I’m not going to leave you to deal with this on your own.”

It occurred to me, in a rare flash of interpersonal insight, that Mila had claimed to need moral support. Perhaps she’d actually wanted me to talk her out of something rash? But, if that was the case, Devlin or Michel would have been far better choices.

But, before I could even begin to chase down that errant thought, it was too late. The crowds parted like a wave and, in the ensuing space, I saw the Twins.

They’d worn matching black suits at the Green Light gala, imposing and impressive in their mute solidarity. At the bar after we’d managed to kidnap Avis, but before we’d taken Devlin out of Interpol’s crosshairs, I seemed to remember that they’d changed into more casual, though still professional, attire. Now, at the heart of the Dallas underground, they’d abandoned the matching attire and chosen clothing that helped to separate the two of them in my mind.

The taller of the twins was a woman, around my height, with a lithe grace to her movements. She seemed…familiar, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She wore a neatly tailored dark blue suit, cut to perfection. As she moved, I caught a glimpse of a shoulder holster beneath her jacket and what appeared, at first glance, to be a hilt of some sort protruding out from a sheath at the small of her back. Her hair fell straight down, past her shoulder blades, like a waterfall of darkness. She paused momentarily as she emerged from the crowd, scanned the area until she spotted Mila, and then pointed for the benefit of her companion.

He had thrown away any pretense of professionalism. Where the female of the pair had adhered, more or less, to the sort of wardrobe I’d expect from any office executive or wall street financier, the male must have gone out of his way to spit in that ideal’s face. A leather jacket, festooned with studs and zippers in odd places, caught my attention first. There was a fringe of faux – I hoped it was faux – fur blossoming from the collar of the leather jacket, concealing the man’s expression from a distance. His own hair was shorter than his sister’s, but more distinctive. He’d deliberately styled it so that various spikes poked out at strange angles, then swept the whole pincushion back slightly so that he could see clearly.

As the Twins drew closer to our table, I was able to take in more details about their appearances. They were dressed at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of presentation, but they somehow made it work for them. The woman took the lead, striding easily towards us without an apparent care in the world, while her brother sauntered along in her wake. She checked the time on a wristwatch and fiddled with her phone before she took one of the two remaining seats at the table, closer to Mila than to me. Her brother adjusted one of the half-dozen rings he wore and dropped unceremoniously into the chair nearer to my side of the table.

Akumi,” Mila said, bowing her head respectfully to the woman. “Kira. How’s work?”

Akumi, the woman, slowly lifted and dropped one of her shoulders in response. “Busy,” she said. “Very busy.”

Shame to hear that,” Mila said.

I prefer to be busy instead of…tired? Dull?”

Bored?” I offered. The Twins turned their eyes to me and I immediately regretted speaking up to begin with.

Who is this?” Kira asked, in a voice that rose and fell with a strange cadence. He tilted his head to what had to be a painful angle and peered at me. A necklace of some sort with a circular charm spilled out of concealment at his throat.

I have a ward right now,” Mila said. “This is her.”

I waved awkwardly. “Uh…hello. It’s, uh…good to meet you?”

In a less dangerous situation, I probably would’ve melted into a puddle of embarrassed goo right there and saved everyone the trouble of hunting me down in order to hurt me.

Kira didn’t stop looking at me. He leaned even closer, lifting himself off of his chair in the process. “You brought her here? Does she know who we are?”

Akumi expertly flicked open a silvery case and removed a single cigarette. She produced a lighter from thin air, lit her cigarette, and took a long pull before picking up the thread of her brother’s thoughts. “Does she know what we do?”

There’d been something familiar about Akumi and I hadn’t put my finger on it until that exact sentence. She gave off the same aura as Mila, on one of her bad days. My skin crawled as the intensity of Akumi’s practiced, disinterested appraisal fell on me. I could feel her eyes cataloging me, analyzing a dozen different attack patterns for maximum efficiency, deciding whether or not it would be more expedient to cripple or kill me. She weighed me in her mind, running every visible detail through some matrix native to mercenaries, hitmen, and other toughs in Mila’s line of work. I shivered involuntarily and felt absolutely certain that Akumi added that to her mental evaluation.

Oh stop that,” Mila said irritably.

The pressure of Akumi’s attention lessened slightly. “Stop what?”

You know what you’re doing. The whole creepy, unsettling vibe that the two of you work so hard at.” Mila sighed. “I came here to talk, but I don’t want to talk with the characters you play when you’re on the job.”

But we are on the job,” Kira said. He still hadn’t returned to his chair, but at least he hadn’t contorted himself anymore.

Are you?” Mila asked. “Akumi, you turned your phone off before you sat down. And Kira, those look like new shoes to me. Are you saying you’d risk a pair of Bathing Apes, if you thought there was any possibility at all that you’d be in a fight?”

That was a whole hell of a lot of insight for someone who claimed an inability to understand people. For Mila to so accurately read the Twins and so quickly, she must have been hiding depths of interpersonal knowledge that would boggle the mind. That, or she’d worked with them in the past long enough to know their quirks and tells. Either way, I was immensely glad for her presence.

The three hitters stared at each other over the table in a silent, intense struggle of wills. Mila endured longer than Kira and, when Kira sighed and returned to a seated position, Akumi relented as well.

You are right,” Akumi said, “and you are also wrong.”

Goto-san does not know we are here,” Kira said. “Not exactly.”

That is why I turned off my phone,” Akumi said. “But also for other reasons.”

And those ‘other reasons’ have something to do with the thieves that hit the Triads a few months back? That’s why you’re asking about that, all of a sudden?”

The Twins exchanged a look and then began conversing in Japanese. I raised a curious eyebrow in Mila’s direction – Japanese wasn’t one of the languages I spoke – and she shook her head in the negative.

While the Twins conversed, the server I’d almost knocked over returned with a bottle of Bourbon, two glasses, a carafe of sake, and a cluster of tiny cups balanced on a tray. She took care to give me a wide berth as she set down the contents of her tray, next to the as-yet untouched food. For a moment, it seemed like she was going to say something to the Twins but she thought better of it and made her exit as quickly as she could instead.

The fevered conversation between the Twins reached some sort of consensus. When Kira spoke again, most of his accent was gone and all of the strange lilting musicality of his voice was replaced by stark seriousness. “Do you trust this…ward of yours?”

With my life,” Mila answered immediately. I barely kept myself from staring at her in shock.

We have known each other a long time,” Akumi said. “And we know that you are both honorable and skilled. If anyone can be trusted…but no. It is not a matter of trust. You owe us a favor.”

I do,” Mila said. “And if you’d get around to asking for it, I could tell you whether or not it’s possible right now.”

Information for information,” Kira said. “You asked us a question once; now, we will ask you one.”

Akumi lowered her voice until it was barely audible. “The people who robbed the Triad? Who are they?”

Mila narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

Kira swallowed nervously, but it was his sister that answered. “Because…” She stopped, collected herself, and started over again. “Because we need their help.”

Chapter 68

I’d only ever seen the underworld once, while in the preliminary stages of a complicated counterfeiting job in Marseilles a few years back. At the time, Devlin had been engaged in infiltrating the high society functions where our target would be displayed and our client – an older woman who seemed to smoke at least two packs of Gauloises every hour, on the hour – had needed an update on our progress. So, I’d met her in a smoky bar on the coast, sipped chardonnay, and talked about the job in low voices to her satisfaction.

Foolishly, I’d allowed myself to believe that every underworld location would be more or less the same: criminals conducting business in hushed voices, furtively glancing over their shoulders and anticipating an arrival from local law enforcement every moment. It wasn’t a reasonable thing to think, of course; I’d personally attended the Green Light Gala in London and rubbed shoulders with the most elite, most mysterious criminals that no one had ever heard of. But it had still been an idea that I’d allowed to take root in my mind.

The Texas underworld uprooted that concept and tossed the branches into the nearest figurative wood chipper.

If Mila’s information was correct – and I had no reason to think otherwise, considering the roundabout way in which we’d been granted access to this speakeasy – then the Dallas underworld wasn’t a place of secret conversations and hastily arranged meetings. This was a place of revelry. As I watched the crowd shifting and surging, I caught the strains of an amplified banjo kicking into an uptempo song. I almost wasn’t surprised to see that an actual band had set up on a raised platform in one corner of the room.

As the song picked up speed and volume, no fewer than a dozen patrons cleared out a little space for themselves among the people and began a complicated line dance that involved as many quicksteps as spins, dips, and twirls. I tried to follow the movements for a few seconds, mesmerized by their agility, before I realized where I was standing and crashed back down into the moment.

“They just…but we’re underneath…how?” I managed to ask.

“Way I understand it,” Mila said, “someone with some pull managed to get the contract for the renovations to Mockingbird Station. When they were fixing up the place, they happened to stumble upon this place and figured that it might be a useful spot to keep to themselves.”

“So they – whoever they are -built this? In six months?”

Mila shrugged. “Looks like it. But you’d have to talk to someone who was actually here during the move to get the whole story, if you’re really interested.”

I spent a good twenty seconds wondering if the unanswered origins of the Dallas underworld’s hideout would bother me, before deciding that I could live without that knowledge. Primarily, there were a great many aspects of the international community that I didn’t understand and I didn’t believe one more question would be too onerous of a burden. In addition to that main reason, however, I didn’t want to bring attention to myself.

Or, more accurately, I didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself than I was already drawing by virtue of my position right at the top of the entry staircase.

“Let’s get somewhere else,” I said. “Anywhere other than in plain view of everyone down there.”

Mila started down the stairs and I stayed one step behind her. She spoke as she descended into the bedlam. “These aren’t the kind of people who’d notice or recognize you, so you don’t have much to worry about there.”

“They wouldn’t notice me?” As soon as the sentence passed my lips, I cringed at the way it had sounded.

“They’d notice,” Mila said, either not noticing or not caring about the arrogance I’d inadvertently displayed, “but they wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t be the first socialite who managed to find their way into an underworld party. Even if someone was in a position to name you, all they’d really be able to say is that you came to a private bar.”

“And that…that works?”

Mila shrugged again. “I ran into two mayors, a senator’s daughter, and a city councilman the last time I went to the old place. People like to drink, they like to dance, and they really like to mind their own business.”

“But if you can’t tell who’s actually a part of the underworld versus the…visitors, I guess, for lack of a better term…how does any actual business get done?”

“Signals, mostly,” Mila said. “Gestures, specific drink orders, that kind of thing. Depends on what you’re after, but you can pretty much get a coded message across to the right people with a little bit of work.”

We reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the bustling floor space. Mila took on a more aggressive posture as she pushed, bumped, and elbowed her way into the throng of people. As she moved them aside, I slipped into her wake, careful not to touch the patrons when they inevitably drifted back into position behind me. While we made our way forward, I allowed myself to consider the merits of the Dallas underworld’s operating procedures.

It did have its merits, I had to admit. There was a lot of lighter business – nonviolent break-ins, pickpocketing, eavesdropping, and the like – that passed through the underworld shops, bars, and hiding spots. The sort of people who would choose to frequent an establishment like this speakeasy probably wouldn’t be too conflicted by the knowledge that such crimes took place, even if they were given solid proof that such crimes were actually taking place.

By hiding in the nearest equivalent to plain sight, the Dallas underworld might have come up with a sustainable business model. Hell, if the activity at the bar was any implication, the unnamed proprietor might very well be making a profit.

The band switched to a slower song, which prompted the occupants of a nearby table to make their way to the cleared area of the floor. Mila swooped in and claimed the table before any of the other patrons could make a move in that direction. I took the chair opposite her, painfully aware of how many people were behind me and therefore out of my line of sight.

“Why are we here?” I asked. “You said we were coming out so that you could show me how to protect myself better, but I don’t see how a speakeasy is going to help with that.”

“It isn’t. I mean, it isn’t directly going to help. You could probably stand to learn a thing or two about relaxation, though.”

“How is relaxing going to help me?”

“If you’re tense, like you are right now, you’re more likely to freeze up at a critical moment,” Mila answered immediately. “Even if it’s only a second or a split second, that could be all it takes for someone to get the upper hand. What happened at the Mason, when those thugs came in to kidnap you?”

I didn’t answer her question out loud, but I couldn’t stop my mind from traveling back and reliving the incident. Just after I’d realized that the Mouse was actually Caelum and just before he’d triggered some sort of wide spectrum jamming device, I’d allowed myself to think through all of the implications of his real identity. While I’d been working my way through the trail of clues, however, I hadn’t actually been doing anything.

By the time I’d decided to act, the two hired goons had already been too close for me to make an escape. Even then, I’d waited until almost the last possible moment before fear and adrenaline galvanized me into attacking the closest man in a desperate bid for freedom.

“There were two men there, both of whom were heavier and presumably more accustomed to violence than me,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the music and cheering. “I was waiting for an opening.”

A female server, complete with signature bandanna tied into a head covering that didn’t quite conceal a considerable amount of flowing black hair, materialized from the crowd of people and approached the table. There was no menu on the table or anywhere that I could see and the server made no effort to produce one.

Mila drummed her fingernails on the tabletop for a few moments. “Are you hungry?” She asked me.

I blinked, momentarily taken aback by the abrupt change in conversation. I actually hadn’t eaten much since a few snacks on the flight and, now that Mila had mentioned it, my stomach began to voice its displeasure.

I nodded to her and she turned to speak to the waiter at a volume that I couldn’t catch. The waitress listened patiently, taking no notes at all, and disappeared back into the wall of people as soon as Mila finished with her order.

“It’s all specials,” Mila said, in answer to my questioning look. “Chef Sergeant is a fixture in this community. He does great work, but he’s, uh…not classically trained. Got most of his experience working short order jobs until he found his way into the underworld, so he’s more comfortable doing orders on the fly.”

“He just makes whatever you ask for?”

“If he can,” Mila said. “If he can’t, he’ll whip up the next best thing. Easier to deal with if you’ve got favorites, but it’s a bitch if you don’t have any idea what you want when you walk in the door. Or down the stairs, whatever.”

Mila’s familiarity with the rules of the Dallas underworld struck me again. She never seemed precisely uncomfortable in her day-to-day life, but she also didn’t ever really seem to fit in t her surroundings. She’d established a relationship with Devlin that consisted of meaningful silences as much as in-depth conversations; her relationship with Michel was a complete mystery to all of us, Michel included. But here, in the underworld she apparently knew from her rookie years, she seemed…at ease? At peace? The proper words kept slipping through my mental fingers.

“Anyway,” Mila said, drawing my attention back to her, “the Mason. There’s a difference between waiting for your moment and freezing up. If you find yourself in a situation like that again, here’s rule number one for survival: it’s better to make the wrong choice than not to make a choice at all. Start running, even if you don’t know where you’re headed. If it comes down to it, attack, even if you know you’ll lose. Maybe some other opportunity will open up, because anything’s better than giving up.”

“If I’d done that, they just would’ve clubbed me over the head and shined that camera right into my -”

Anything,” Mila repeated, with enough force that I shut up, mid-sentence. She closed her eyes briefly, appeared to center herself, and finished her thought. “I’m not saying you should be reckless and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid. But I am saying that you shouldn’t act like a deer in the headlights. Fight or flee, but never freeze.”

I nodded, more to move past this portion of the conversation than out of any real agreement. As I thought more about this first rule, however, I felt like I could just barely glimpse the tenet’s merits. If I hadn’t done anything at all, the goons would have revealed me to the Mouse. If I’d attempted to get away sooner, what could really have happened? Either I got away from them and from the Mouse’s jammer, free to call for help…or I got caught before making it out of the museum.

If the former, so much the better. If the latter, it wasn’t any worse than what awaited me for inaction. And, if I’d been able to muster the will to attack a little sooner, maybe I would’ve caught the men completely flat-footed.

Mila’s first rule bore closer consideration. I resolved to give it that time when I wasn’t several dozen feet underground, listening to a rousing dance tune that sounded suspiciously like the theme from Deliverance.

“That’s not why we’re here, though,” I said finally.

“No,” Mila said. “It’s not.”

Then, she hesitated. It wasn’t a long silence, as silences went. Mila had, on more than one occasion, lapsed into silence in the middle of a conversation for no discernible reason. I almost didn’t give the momentary pause a second thought, but then I noticed that Mila was avoiding eye contact.

That was abnormal. Mila was disconcertingly capable of maintaining eye contact, no matter what the topic of conversation and regardless of how personal that conversation might be. If she was looking away from me now, it meant that she was feeling deeply embarrassed about her real reason for bringing me to underworld with her. And if she was feeling embarrassed, the real reason for our little trip would probably have crippled any lesser mortal with shame and indecision.

“You’re trying to keep your name secret,” Mila said. “I get that. It’s your own thing, like Devlin’s got his issues with bullies. I’m not trying to get in the way of that.”

“Okay…”

“But I’ve got my own things to deal with,” she said.

“I know that. We know that. We knew we’d have to deal with your past at some point when we asked you to join up with us, long-term. What’re you trying to say?”

Mila shook her head. “It’s not about Aiden. Not directly, at least.”

“Then what?”

“When we were in London, trying to stop Hill from getting his hands on the kid, I went rogue for a bit while we were on the job. Do you remember?”

I did. Our efforts to rescue the child Avis had, inadvertently, led to the police taking a direct interest in Devlin. In a single night, we’d gone from a crowded bar into the shadowy recesses of a legitimate Black Market buried in the seedy underbelly of the city; from that Market into a fiery showdown at a repurposed manufacturing plant; and from that plant into the heart of police power in the greater London metropolitan area.

Mila had attempted to go rogue during the first stage of that endeavor, when we’d still had a several day long plan in the works. While she’d been tasked to protect Michel, she had instead switched off her camera and entered into a conversation with a pair of associates she knew from previous jobs.

“I remember,” I said. “The Twins, right?”

“Right. Akumi and Kira are old…I don’t know if I’d call them friends, but we’ve worked together in the past. We’ve also worked against each other, but it wasn’t ever anything personal.”

Having seen Mila in her element, and with my knowledge of the people she’d consorted with before joining our team, I couldn’t begin to understand how a conflict wouldn’t be personal, by default, but I was willing to accept that it was possible. Devlin stole items from people he’d previously worked with. I’d been forced to hack my way past defenses set up by other members of the Community. Of course, where it concerned Devlin and myself, people generally didn’t end up with broken bones, but Mila seemed to consider those as mere details.

“So,” Mila said. “I made a deal. The twins gave me information on Aiden and I promised to help them in the future. One request, no matter what, and I had to do my best to help them out.”

I caught a glimpse of where this conversation was headed. The twins were either Japanese or they’d chosen to speak in Japanese. Either way, I knew of at least one Japanese organization that might have some serious issues to discuss with me and the rest of the team.

“You didn’t tell them anything about we’re doing. You didn’t.”

“I didn’t,” Mila confirmed. “As far as anyone’s concerned, I’ve just been taking contracts for the last couple of months. No one’s going to hold that kind of work against me. I’m too valuable for that.”

I noted how Mila could say something like that without a trace of arrogance, while I couldn’t seem to mention my own upbringing without sounding impossibly pompous. Then, I added another entry to the list of ‘things Mila can get away with ‘and refocused on the conversation.

“But I can’t break my word,” Mila continued. “When they asked if I knew what had happened to that money we stole in China, I couldn’t lie to them. Not without triggering a much larger shit storm than was already brewing. I tried to distract them, but it didn’t work.”

A creeping sense of horror, mingled with understanding, was slowly dawning on me. “They had financial interests in that area?”

Mila nodded. “Seems like it. The people Akumi and Sato work for don’t normally invest in international schemes, but we have been changing the landscape pretty drastically.”

That was an understatement of the highest order. Yakuza organizations, like the one the Twins probably worked for, were incredibly insular. Some factions branched out to local countries without strong underworld communities, but that was generally it. If they were pooling resources with members of the Chinese Triad, there was no telling what other new and dangerous relationships could be forming in the shadows.

“So what did you tell them?”

“I told them that I knew someone involved. That’s technically true. I didn’t give any names, but still. They wanted more information and they wanted to meet, ASAP.”

“Mila. Why did you bring me here?”

She gave me the most helpless shrug I’d ever seen any human being produce, let alone one whose entire demeanor seemed custom-designed to avoid helplessness. “Moral support?”